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Organizing Amazon — An Inside Job

The front-page headline was no April Fool’s Day prank: “Amazon Workers on Staten Island Vote to Unionize.” The Times would devote three days to the story, which took many “experts” by surprise. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union had recently spent more than $1 million in an unsuccessful drive to organize workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The Amazon Labor Union’s campaign at the JFK8 facility on State Island cost $120,000, raised via GoFundMe. The difference? For the ALU it was an inside job, led by two 31-year-old close friends, Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer. The vote was 2,654 to 2,131.

Amazon spent more than $4.3 million on anti-union consultants last year. As reported in theTimes by Karen Weise and Noam Schreiber, “Amazon said it was evaluating its options, including potentially filing an objection to ‘inappropriate and undue influence” by the National Labor Relations Board for suing Amazon in federal court last month. In that case, the NLRB asked a judge to force Amazon to swiftly rectify ‘flagrant unfair labor practices’ it said took place when Amazon fired a worker who became involved with the union. Amazon argued in court that the labor board abandoned ‘the neutrality of their office’ by filing the injunction just before the election.”

According to Weise and Schreiber, “The near-term question facing the labor movement and other progressive groups is the extent to which they will help the upstart Amazon Labor Union withstand potential challenges to the result and negotiate a first contract, such as by providing resources and legal talent.”

The Teamsters are reportedly “prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars unionizing Amazon and to collaborate with a variety of other unions and progressive groups.” Teamster president Sean O’Brien told the Times, “We’ve got a lot of partners in labor. We’ve got community groups. It’s going to be a large coalition.”

But will the “upstart” ALU welcome the support being offered by the big union bureaucrats?

A piece in the Times April 2 by Weise and Jodi Kantor described Amazon’s insane response to the ALU:

“In the first dark days of the pandemic, as an Amazon worker named Christian Smalls planned a small, panicked walkout over safety conditions at the retailer’s only fulfillment center in New York City, the company quietly mobilized.

“Amazon formed a reaction team involving 10 departments, including its Global Intelligence Program, a security group staffed by many military veterans. The company named an ‘incident commander’ and relied on a ‘Protest Response Playbook’ and ‘Labor Activity Playbook’ to ward off ‘business disruptions,’ according to newly released court documents.

“In the end, there were more executives — including 11 vice presidents — who were alerted about the protest than workers who attended it. Amazon’s chief counsel, describing Mr. Smalls as ‘not smart, or articulate,’ in an email mistakenly sent to more than 1,000 people, recommended making him ‘the face’ of efforts to organize workers.The company fired Mr. Smalls, saying he had violated quarantine rules by attending the walkout...

“Mr. Smalls and his best friend from the warehouse, Derrick Palmer, set their sights on unionizing after he was forced out. Along with a growing band of colleagues — and no affiliation with a national labor organization — the two men spent the past 11 months going up against Amazon, whose 1.1 million workers in the United States make it the country’s second-largest private employer.

“At the bus stop [outside JFK8] they built bonfires to warm colleagues waiting before dawn to go home. They made TikTok videos to reach workers across the city. Mr. Palmer brought homemade baked ziti to the site; others toted empanadas and West African rice dishes to appeal to immigrant workers. They set up signs saying ‘Free Weed and Food.’

“They were both Black men from New Jersey and the same age (31 then, 33 now). Both had dropped out of community college, prided themselves on high scores on Amazon’s performance metrics and once hoped to rise within the company.

“Now they made new plans. Mr. Palmer would keep working at JFK8, the better to change it from inside. In early 2021, they took a road trip to another Amazon warehouse. When workers held a union drive in Bessemer, Ala., Mr. Palmer and Mr. Smalls wanted to witness it. But they found organizers from the retail union — the one that had previously declared an interest in JFK8 — less than welcoming to them and thought the professionals seemed like outsiders who had descended on the community.

Christian Smalls on Democracy Now!

“On April 3 Smalls told Amy Goodman, “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... 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. ..

“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...

“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... 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: ...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.

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.

Ain’t we all just a little bit tired of greedy people gettin’ a free pass

Hoarding obscene amounts of wealth, riding on everybody else’s back

Hey Mr Bezos, I’m talking to you

That flimsy veil you’re wearing is so easy to see through

— Iris DeMent

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