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“We Just Unionized Amazon”: How Two Best Friends Beat the Retail Giant’s Union-Busting Campaign

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We speak with the two best friends who led a drive to organize workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island, New York, and made history Friday after a majority voted to form the first Amazon union in the U.S. We speak with Christian Smalls, interim president of the new union and former Amazon supervisor, about how he led the effort after Amazon fired him at the height of the pandemic for demanding better worker protections. “I think we proved that it’s possible, no matter what industry you work in, what corporation you work for,” says Smalls. “We just unionized Amazon. If we can do that, we can unionize anywhere.” We also speak with Derrick Palmer, who works at the Amazon JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island and is the vice president of the Amazon Labor Union, about intimidation tactics the company used. Reporter Josefa Velásquez covered the union drive for The City and discusses what the victory means for the broader labor movement.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Here in New York, in an historic victory for labor rights, workers at the retail giant Amazon have voted to unionize.

AMAZON WORKERS: [cheering]. Let’s go! Yeah! Let’s go, baby! ALU! ALU! ALU! ALU!

AMY GOODMAN: Workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island celebrating Friday after they overcame a multimillion-dollar union-busting campaign and voted decisively in favor of joining the newly formed Amazon Labor Union, the first Amazon union in U.S. history. More than 8,300 workers at the warehouse were eligible to vote. The effort was led by Christian Smalls, who is now interim president of the Amazon Labor Union.

CHRISTIAN SMALLS: We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space, because when he was up there, we were signing people up.

UNIDENTIFIED: Yeah, we were down here campaigning.

AMY GOODMAN: Smalls will join us in a moment. Amazon responded to the union vote in a statement, saying, “We are disappointed with the outcome of the election in State Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees. We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election,” Amazon wrote.

The victory in State Island comes as a redo of a union election led by Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, is still too close to call. The second vote in Alabama comes after the National Labor Relations Board found Amazon unlawfully interfered with the first Bessemer election last year by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. RWDSU tweeted after Friday’s vote in Staten Island, quote, “History was made today. Huge congrats! Solidarity with Amazon workers from Staten Island to Bessemer and beyond!” they said.

Well, for more, we’re joined by the two best friends who played the key role in this historic labor victory, after Amazon cracked down on their grassroots organizing for better working conditions. Christian Smalls is interim president and lead organizer of the Amazon Labor Union, representing the JFK8 Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York. He was wrongfully terminated from his job two years ago after, he says, he organized a walkout over COVID safety conditions at the height of the pandemic. Joining other workers, he wore a mask and carried a sign that read, “Our health is just as essential.” At a victory party for the union Sunday, Christian Smalls was presented by his younger brother with a framed version of the sign. He’s joining us now from Staten Island. Also with us, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, is Derrick Palmer, vice president of organizing for the Amazon Labor Union. He’s still an employee at Amazon JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island. And in Brooklyn, we’re joined by Josefa Velásquez, senior reporter for The City, a nonprofit online news site based in New York City. Her latest piece is headlined “A Cinderella Story: How Staten Island Amazon Workers Won Against the Multi-Billion-Dollar Company.”

We welcome all of you to Democracy Now! Well, Christian Smalls, why don’t we begin with you? Can you respond to this victory and what it took to get here, and, specifically, organizing at the same time your own union, the Amazon Labor Union?

CHRISTIAN SMALLS: Yes. Good morning. Thank you for having me. Wow! Every time I hear or see those videos, it still takes a lot out of me, because it’s unbelievable, what we accomplished. We started 11 months ago, a grassroots, worker-led movement, just Amazon workers, former, current, like myself, just trying to do the right thing — once again, no resources, no major backing, just a bunch of ordinary people just coming together from all over the country. We had different people flying in to help us out, some of the comrades that I traveled the country with, advocating with. And 11 months ago, we started something that we really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, but we just knew that it was working for us. You know, we were consistently talking to our workers every single day — me, unfortunately, not being able to go inside the building. It was just a combination me and Derrick on the inside-outside game: you know, me at the bus stop connecting with workers, earning their trust, building relationships; Derrick actually inside the building, talking to workers every day in his department, taking over his old department. You know, things like that helped us get us to this point. And I’m just ecstatic and excited to be the interim president and lead us this victory. It’s wonderful to see, and I’m happy to just once again share this experience with the entire world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Christian, can you go back two years ago to March 2020, when New York City shut down, and talk about what you did? Talk about that first walkout and how you ended up being fired.

CHRISTIAN SMALLS: Yeah. Well, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Derrick. You know, Derrick was — at that time, I had no vehicle. Me and Derrick, we live in the same neighborhood, close proximity of the same neighborhood in New Jersey. And we were riding to work every day, and every day I noticed somebody in my department was becoming ill, whether it was dizziness, fatigue, vomiting. They weren’t — something was wrong. It was a very eerie situation in the building. We didn’t have any PPE. We didn’t have any cleaning supplies. We didn’t have any social distancing. Amazon wasn’t really enforcing any guidelines. Everything was just hearsay.

We tried to go through the proper channels. And then, by the end of the week, after going into the general manager’s office every single day voicing our concerns, they only decided to quarantine just me and nobody else, not even Derrick, the person I ride to work with. And at that moment, I knew that something was wrong. They were just using this quarantine, that nobody’s seen — this policy, nobody read or seen or even heard of — to silence me from organizing the workers. So I decided to take further action, break that quarantine and, you know, hold that walkout on March 30th. And two hours after that walkout, that’s when I was terminated over the phone.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to be clear, they were quarantining you, but you hadn’t tested positive for COVID.

CHRISTIAN SMALLS: Absolutely not. Knock on wood. Not even ’til this day, I never tested positive.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Derrick Palmer, can you talk about what went on on the inside there? You were co-workers. You went to work together every day. You’re best friends. So, Christian is fired. And can you talk about your decision to stay inside?

DERRICK PALMER: Yeah. You know, at first, it was like — it was very discouraging, hearing that Chris got fired, just for doing the right thing, for standing up for all of us. You know, so I had a tough decision to make. And at the time, there wasn’t a lot of jobs available. So I said, “You know what? I think I’m going to make it my business to organize from within at JFK8.” And I feel like that played a vital role. You know, a lot of workers were talking about Chris, being scared about the coronavirus, and then ultimately speaking up about the coronavirus because of what happened to Chris and other organizers that were terminated. So I made it my business to talk to them, to ease that tension, to still let them know that — you know, what I feel was illegal. So, you know, just organizing within building, building relationships with other workers, making them comfortable, and just playing that role until we were ready to unionize. And I think that played a key part to our victory on April 1st.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to this leaked audio recording obtained by The City newspaper from a meeting last Tuesday, when Amazon workers met with an Amazon workforce staffing manager named Eric and an employee relations manager, who presented slides on the, quote, “reality of dues and the subject of union life.” This is a short clip from the recording.

ERIC: We talked last week about dues. Remember that dues are paid by employees, and that’s the only source of income or funding toward the needs to pay salaries and expenses. These things may not be anything you want, but they mean a lot to unions. So, will the ALU priorities match yours? The collective bargaining can select any negotiation. Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little. And what’s important to you may not be important to someone else.

AMAZON WORKER: Oh my god, yo, I can’t…

ERIC: So, a union contract could leave you with the same things you have now, like vacation time, paid parental leave, wages, health benefits, 401(k) for injuries, and resources for living. Or it could give you more or less than what you have right now. It is important to remember that negotiations are always a give and take. To give something, you give up something. And here’s why they matter. What is important to the ALU may not be important to you. They will be willing to trade your priorities for one of theirs.

AMAZON WORKER: That’s not true.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a worker saying, “That’s not true.” Derrick Palmer, you were in this meeting. It wasn’t so clear to hear, so if you could talk about the main points that management was presenting and what this was all about?

DERRICK PALMER: Yeah, I mean, these captive audience meetings, they’re pretty much designed to discourage workers from signing up for unions. So, you know, what I witnessed with multiple captive audience meetings is that the message that they’re trying to relay is that you can’t speak to your manager once you become — once a building becomes unionized; you can lose certain benefits from joining a union; the ALU is inexperienced — all different type of points that they try to convey to these workers, which ultimately scares them. So, having myself and other organizers on the inside pretty much counteracting all the messages that they’re trying to present to the workers, you know, played a vital role. So, they’ve had so many different other things that they were talking about, as well, saying that your personal time could be the same, you can lose pay, as well — so, a lot of threatening things that they were trying to do.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Josefa into this conversation. Josefa Velásquez is with The City. You got this leaked audio. Can you talk about the significance of this victory?

JOSEFA VELÁSQUEZ: I mean, I don’t think we can really understand how big this is. These guys, to their credit, really were this grassroots movement, and they took on Amazon, which is a behemoth, and Jeff Bezos, the second-richest person on Earth. And they really did it through their connections with the people in the facility. I mean, I think both Chris and Derrick have worked at multiple Amazon sites in the last few years, and they know the people that they work with. They understand the company. You know, a lot of times when you see anti-union, like, messaging, it’s always, you know, “These outsiders are coming in. They’re going to threaten the way that your work is done.” But these are two individuals and many other organizers who know the nitty-gritty and the details of how Amazon works. I mean, sometimes they would explain things to me, and I would just stare at them like with a blank expression because it was so wonky. So, the fact that not only they understood the company and the work that was being done behind it, they look like the people who work there. I mean, Amazon thrives on, like, high turnover among its employees, so you do see a lot of people who are very young.

And it’s very sort of quintessential New York with some of these captive audience meetings. You know, we’ve heard leaked audio previously from some of these meetings down South, but in New York what you’re hearing is people pushing back. You know, New York is a union town, but these guys really didn’t have much institutional backing or support. And it is the ultimate Cinderella story.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about, to say the least, Amazon being large. It’s the second-largest private employer in the country — right? — right behind Walmart, and, of course, Jeff Bezos, the second-wealthiest man on Earth. I wanted to go back to 2018, when then-Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said Amazon believed its workers didn’t need a union.

JEFF BEZOS: Very good communications with our employees, so we don’t believe that we need a union to be an intermediary between us or our employees. But, of course, at the end of the day, it’s always the employees’ choice. And that’s how it should be. So, we’re — but, for sure, we would be very naive to believe that we’re not going to be criticized. I mean, that’s just part of the terrain. You have to accept that. One other thing I tell people is, if you’re going to be — if you’re going to do anything new or innovative, you have to be willing to be misunderstood.

AMY GOODMAN: That was 2018. “You have to be willing to be misunderstood.” I wanted to go back to Christian Smalls. There was an internal memo that was leaked, saying that you weren’t very smart, and so they would make you the face of the movement — a challenge you took up in a very big way, saying, “OK, if I’m the face, I’m the face.”

CHRISTIAN SMALLS: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. You know, when that memo came out, that obviously motivated me to continue advocating for workers’ rights across the nation. You know, me and Derrick, we traveled the country. We protested in front of Jeff Bezos’s mansions and penthouses that we can find on Google, from the East Coast to the West Coast. And we decided to go back home to Staten Island.

You know, once again, we were invested in this company. Derrick is still invested. He’s over six-year vet. You know, they don’t realize who we are to this company. We understand the warehouses more than Jeff Bezos do. So it’s funny that he said, you know, “You’re going to be misunderstood,” because we were. You know, we were underestimated. We were counted out. People didn’t believe in us. People thought that this wasn’t going to happen. They had never thought that — expected that we were going to be here. It’s not just Jeff Bezos and his general counsel that didn’t want us to get here. It’s a lot of other people, as well, that claimed to be on the same side, that didn’t believe that we would be here. So, for us to be here at this moment, you know, it’s, once again, surreal for us.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you went down to Bessemer. I remember when we were doing a piece, we heard you were down there. Now, that, the Bessemer union-organizing effort, was run by RWDSU — right? — the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. And we’re still waiting to hear the results now —

CHRISTIAN SMALLS: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — on the second vote. The NLRB said that Amazon had to have a — allow for a second election because they had interfered with the first one. Why didn’t you go with, oh, RWDSU or the Teamsters, for example? The Teamsters union praised the workers at Amazon in Staten Island for your victory and ongoing union efforts of Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, tweeting, “What these elections show is Amazon workers want a union. The workers in Bessemer and Staten Island don’t have to wait for the government or anyone else to tell them they have power. They’re taking a stand & Amazon can’t skirt the law indefinitely. The #Teamsters are excited to continue this fight against Amazon — on the shop floor, at the bargaining table, & on the streets.” But it is Amazon Labor Union that actually won this battle, and it’s the first against Amazon to win.

CHRISTIAN SMALLS: Right, right. Well, once again, you know, these established unions, with their resources and the money that they have, the volunteers that they have, you know, I tell everybody, they had 28 years. Amazon has been around for 28 years. You know, we’ve done something that was unprecedented, because when we went down to Bessemer, we saw some missed opportunities with the campaign the first time. We saw things that didn’t really fit what Amazon workers represent. And I felt that, you know, in order to take down the machine, it has to become — it has to come from within. It has to be the workers organizing themselves. And that’s what we did with the ALU. We created something that resonated with the workers. We are the workers. We know the ins and outs of the company. We live the grievances. We understand the concerns. We know the language. We look like Amazon employees, especially here in New York.

So, bringing in an established union, that would have took so much time away from actually campaigning towards an election, because we would now have to educate the union on what Amazon is and how to connect with workers. And I think Amazon uses that against us. Already, even with the ALU, they claim that we’re a third party. If you listen to the captive audiences, they say “they” are going to make the decisions for you. They tried to separate us. But they couldn’t do that, because we say we are — we are all the union. All the workers together are the union. And together, we’re going to make these decisions. And that’s how we were able to be successful against Amazon.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Josefa Velásquez about what’s happening in Bessemer. You’ve got a very close vote. I think it’s 993 “no” votes, 875 “yes” votes, more than 400 contested ballots. According to the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, there will be a hearing within a few weeks to decide if the challenged ballots will be opened and counted. Talk about the difference you see in strategizing between what happened in Staten Island and what’s happening in Bessemer right now.

JOSEFA VELÁSQUEZ: Right. I think, you know, it’s what Chris said, that these are Amazon workers who are unionizing and organizing within their ranks, as opposed to what’s happening down South, where you do have a major labor union that is helping organize. And the first time around with the vote in Bessemer, they got a lot of heat, because you’re bringing in celebrities, high-profile politicians. You know, that’s not the people who work at Amazon. Those are people who surely order stuff from Amazon, but that’s not the folks that are inside packing up orders, shipping them out, putting in 10- to 12-hour days. So there was a disconnect there. And they had a second chance at it, and it’s still really close.

And you can’t discount the fact that New York is typically pro-union and union-friendly. But at the same time, you know, to the ALU’s immense positioning, it’s organizing within the ranks and understanding how this company works and the intricacies of it. You know, for us at the user-facing platform, it’s three clicks, and you have your product. But for the workers themselves, it’s all of these different steps, all of this jargon. And you understand that, at least in New York, sometimes to get to the Amazon facility in the northwest corner of Staten Island, you have to take a bus, you have to take a train, and then another bus, and it’s a two-hour commute each way. So they understand who are the workers behind this organization. And it’s really, I think — you know, a lot of the times you get the word “grassroots” thrown around, but this is a case where it’s truly grassroots, where you have people who understand how Amazon works. I mean, Derrick still works inside of the facility and saw the union busting going on firsthand. Chris has worked as a supervisor in Amazon previously. He’s trained people. So they know exactly who the workers are and their grievances and how the union can help make things better.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Derrick, what are your plans now? ALU has won this enormous victory. What are your demands?

DERRICK PALMER: Well, just having better benefits, better pay, you know, like sick time. Those are the basic things. Also job security. You know, Amazon has a 150% turnover ratio at JFK alone. So, people that come and commute from all these different boroughs, their jobs should be secure. It shouldn’t take them three hours to get to work, and then, when they get there, they could possibly be fired. You know, the possibilities of that are very high. So we have to make that change, and also recruiting more workers to get involved with the union, becoming shop stewards. So we want to have shop stewards in different departments, so that we have workers representing other workers and that we can create an environment where our demands and the workers’ needs are appreciated. So, if you have these workers on the inside being more involved with the union, then now you create a powerful force that ultimately can’t really be stopped, and Amazon has to abide by these rules.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Chris, do you plan to organize other warehouses? I mean, you actually have one — I mean, yours is what? Eighty-five hundred people. You have one right across the street.

CHRISTIAN SMALLS: Yeah, absolutely. We have another election in a couple of weeks that we are already preparing ourselves for. We’re right back out there. I was at the bus stop yesterday. You know, we’re right back to the same thing we were doing. And we absolutely got contacted by thousands of workers in the last 48 hours from all over the country. So, absolutely, this is just day one for ALU. Myself and Derrick, between us, we opened up several different buildings. We want to absolutely organize those. We’ve got people reaching out that, you know, watched and pay attention. And I’m ecstatic about what’s next. I know this is the catalyst for the revolution against Amazon, the same way it’s been happening with Starbucks. So, we’re going to have that same effect.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Josefa, if you can talk about the comparison of what’s happening with Amazon now and with Starbucks, what we’re seeing all over the country right now?

JOSEFA VELÁSQUEZ: Right, and I think it all goes back to sort of the early days of the pandemic, where everyone was lauding essential workers, people who still had to work, while some of us had the luxury to work from home, and these 7 p.m. clap-outs that we had. All these people had to work through the pandemic. And suddenly, from one day to the next, we sort of just forgot about it, and it became in the back of our minds. So, now you have this moment where people were more conscious of the working class, the people who keep us fed, the people who deliver our coffee, deliver our packages. And so I think it created this moment, really, in history where people started recognizing the working class more so than before, especially when it comes to like tech and big companies, where now you’re seeing Amazon and Starbucks having these major profit margins, while their workers are struggling to pay rent, to keep themselves fed, and are getting sick and dying from this virus.

So, it created this moment where everyone was looking around and saying, you know, “We have an immense amount of power, because people are no longer putting up with some of the working situations they have — they have other alternatives — and that at the end of the day, you know, dying over a Starbucks is not worth it, so let’s create something different. Let’s organize. You know, there’s power in numbers.”

And I think there’s two very clear things happening here, where it’s these worker-led movements and also a very big generational shift into the sort of feelings towards unions. Gen Z and millennials don’t have the same antipathy that perhaps, you know, Gen Xers and baby boomers have towards unions. Like, these are unicorn-like jobs, where if you’re able to grab a union job, great. These are very rare. So, you know, it’s this idea of organizing and this behind-the-scenes look through social media of, like, how my coffee gets made in the morning and all the steps behind it — and same thing with Amazon, it’s “How does my package actually get from point A to point B?” — that I think caused this moment of revelation for everyone that, you know, it’s not OK, how people are treated.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Smalls, your final message, as we wrap up this conversation, to workers around the country? And also, what are the next steps right now for ALU when it comes to this warehouse? When do you commence contract negotiations?

CHRISTIAN SMALLS: Well, I’m going to answer the first one — excuse me — I’m going to answer the first one first. You know, we started already. You know, we already dropped off two letters to our general manager. I released a statement two days ago. And we’re already talking with lawyers. We’re going to be bringing in some more legal representation.

And the message to the workers across the country, and even across the world: You know, do not quit your jobs anymore; organize them. You know, that’s just a simple thing that you can do. You know, everybody say, “Quit your job if you don’t like it.” Well, you’re jumping from one fire into the next, and I think we need to stop doing that, because nothing gets changed. The system still remains in place if you continue to do that. And I think we proved that it’s possible, no matter what industry you work in, what corporation you work for. We just unionized Amazon. And if we can do that, you can unionize anywhere. You know, I’ve already seen emails coming in from — for example, I got some workers that reached out to me from Walmart. You know, whatever we can do, whatever advice we can lend, we’re absolutely here for you guys, very accessible. So, please reach out, stay connected, support us. If you’re in the New York area, volunteer, phone bank, donate. Once again, we are grassroots. We’re ordinary people trying to do the right thing and protect one another. This is improving everybody’s quality of life, forming a union, so I encourage everybody to do the same thing. Follow us on our social media: @amazonlabor on Twitter, @AmazonLaborUnion on Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, at AmazonLaborUnion.org; myself, @Shut_downAmazon

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Christian Smalls, interim president of Amazon Labor Union, and Derrick Palmer, vice president of the Amazon Labor Union and Amazon worker. They are best friends, both 31 years old. And, Josefa Velásquez, senior reporter for The City, we’ll link to your coverage, including your latest piece, “A Cinderella Story: How Staten Island Amazon Workers Won Against the Multi-Billion-Dollar Company.”

Next up, Ukrainian officials are accusing Russia of committing war crimes and genocide for killing civilians. We’ll speak with Amnesty International. Stay with us.

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