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UNION UNDERDOG

How organizer Chris Smalls clinched a union win for Amazon workers

An Amazon labor organizer dressed in all red walks outside of a New York office.
Reuters/Brendan McDermid
A historic win.
By Courtney Vinopal
Published Last updated

Amazon employees at a Staten Island, New York City warehouse voted by a roughly 10% margin to form a union this week, marking the first successful labor campaign at the retail giant. More than 2,600 employees voted to be represented by Amazon Labor Union, an independent union that came together within the past two years under the leadership of organizer Chris Smalls.

The historic win on April 1 came the same week that Amazon workers at a separate warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama voted against unionizing for a second time, according to initial tallies. In a statement, Amazon said it was disappointed by the outcome of the Staten Island vote, and that it was considering filing objections.

In recent years, Amazon has sought to quash unionization efforts across the country, spending millions of dollars on consultants focused on dissuading workers from organizing.

Amazon workers started organizing during the pandemic

Organizing for the Amazon Labor Union began in March 2020, when Staten Island workers walked out over management’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Amazon supervisor Chris Smalls, who helped organize the walkout, was fired soon after and set out to unionize workers at the warehouse.

Smalls and his fellow organizers solicited donations for the union through GoFundMe, found a pro bono attorney on Twitter, and raised awareness of their campaign through a TikTok account. Their efforts were part of a growing wave of worker activism across the US, but were met by plenty of pushback from Amazon. In a leaked memo obtained by Vice, Amazon’s general counsel called Smalls “not smart or articulate,” and laid out a strategy to quell support for a union by making the former employee the face of it.

“Ironically, he said to make me the face of the whole unionizing effort, so I said, ‘OK, that’s a good idea,'” Smalls told The City earlier this month. Two years after being fired, Smalls popped champagne outside the office of the National Labor Relations Board today, toasting “the first Amazon union in history.”

Next fight will be for a contract

Now that the Amazon Labor Union has won the majority of workers’ votes, they’ll have to fight for a contract—and such an endeavor may require a continued and expanded campaign, said former Economic Policy Institute president Larry Mishel.

While Smalls hasn’t yet released a detailed list of what the union is seeking from Amazon, he’s said they hope to lobby management to raise minimum pay to $30 an hour, compared to the current starting hourly wage of $18, and restore monthly productivity bonuses. Amazon spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants in 2021, according to HuffPost.

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