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Christian Smalls: A new kind of American labor leader

Teddy Ostrow
July 17, 2022

The interim president of the Amazon Labor Union helped secure the most important union victory in the United States in decades. The key to success was being himself a worker.

A picture of Christian Smalls, wearing a Yankees cap, at the US Senate Budget Committee hearing on May 5, 2022.
Friends of the rapper-turned-union leader say 'his voice was meant for something else'Image: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/AFP

"We're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't," — that's what Christian Smalls, the interim president of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), often preaches to his colleagues. "If we try and we lose and we fail, but people see that we continue to fight and fight and fight, there's nothing they can say about us," he told DW in a recent interview.

In April, the ALU unionized the first Amazon warehouse in the United States. With the megacorporation poised to become the largest private sector employer in the country, it was one of the most significant wins for the American labor movement in decades. 

Motivated by his former employer's "mistreatment of him and his co-workers," Smalls is making a name for himself as an emergent labor leader in a country where they are few and far between.

Union organizer Christian Smalls (center) celebrates as he speaks with other protestors at the  Amazon Staten Island warehouse in New York
The ALU and Christian Smalls (center) celebrate their success, but the pressure is on to keep on winning and defend what they've won.Image: Andrea Renault/AFP/Getty Images

The stakes of unionizing Amazon

The fall of American unionism is often told in the same breath as the fall of American manufacturing.

Now that logistics has replaced manufacturing's centrality in the US economy, labor activists believe the fate of the country's workers hangs on whether one of the sector's biggest players — Amazon — can be unionized. 

Over a million people work for Amazon in the US, and the company is expected to surpass Walmart as the largest private-sector employer in the next few years, and UPS as the largest delivery service.

Soon to employ 1% of the American working population, Amazon will have an outsized influence on working conditions in the industry and beyond. 

Yet reports show Amazon workers are seriously mistreated by the company and are underpaid compared to their industry counterparts. Workers are surveilled, suffer injury rates more than double the industry average and are held to productivity quotas so intense that some workers refrain from using the bathroom lest they be fired.

ALU's humble beginnings

That's why excitement abounds that workers at JFK8, an 8,300-employee Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, voted to unionize — the first to do so in the United States.

Almost the entire movement was shocked that it was the independent union ALU and not a more established union, like RWDSU, which lost its union election at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama by wide margins in 2021. A second election was ordered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) after findings that Amazon had violated labor law and the results are still being reviewed by the government enforcer.

"We really embrace the fact that we're doing something so unprecedented that we don't even have the playbook for it," Smalls said.

Smalls and a few of his former co-workers at the Staten Island facility initiated the campaign with two tables, two chairs and a tent. The nascent union set up shop right in front of the warehouse, at the bus stop where Amazon workers commuted to and from work.

As the group greeted workers, passed out reading materials, offered them hot food and free marijuana, they got their colleagues to sign union cards, and more importantly, to become organizers themselves within the building. 

Spending only $120,000 (€118.,800) from a GoFundMe fundraiser, the ALU was able to overcome the high churn rate at the facility and the well-funded anti-union efforts waged by the company.

The battle to unionize Amazon

The face of the ALU: Christian Smalls

While many worker-organizers were behind the victory at JFK8, Smalls has emerged as an integral leader of the ALU. 

Unlike many American labor leaders, Smalls, 34, is first and foremost a worker.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Smalls briefly lived his dream as a rapper, touring with Philadelphia artist Meek Mill. But to be able to support his three children, he dropped his music career and worked for a number of different companies before settling at Amazon in 2015.

Smalls moved through a number of facilities before ending up at JFK8 in Staten Island.

"What motivated me was obviously being fired in the middle of a pandemic, losing my main source of income and then having the company try to publicly shame me," Smalls said.

Smalls was working in a supervisory position before he was infamously fired by the company for leading one of the first labor actions of the pandemic in 2020. He was disturbed by the company's unsafe practices that were putting workers' lives at risk, so he led a walkout.

After he was fired, a leaked memo from an Amazon leadership meeting, which then CEO Jeff Bezos attended, revealed that the company planned a smear campaign against Smalls to disparage union organizing. 

In what's widely been considered a racist dog whistle, Amazon's general counsel called Smalls "not smart or articulate."

But Smalls explained, "Jeff Bezos being in that room, signing off on that — that motivated me to continue fighting even though I no longer was employed."

But as Smalls' organizing progressed, his outlook broadened. "As far as where I get my motivation from, it's just doing the work, meeting folks from all walks of life throughout the course of this journey and especially the younger generation."

"I know that I'm doing it for them and I'm doing it for my children, and doing it with my comrades and former colleagues at Amazon to change things."

A different kind of labor leader

American labor likely hasn't seen a leader widely recognizable to the public since the Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared in infamy in 1975.

Smalls' renown hasn't reached Hoffa's yet, but the thickening media spotlight has emphasized that he's a different kind of labor leader — one that isn't afraid to be himself a worker.

When invited to the White House by President Joe Biden and to the Senate Budget Committee by Senator Bernie Sanders (pictured below), Smalls wore a Yankee cap and a yellow, black and red bomber jacket, with "Eat the Rich" printed on the front and back.

US Senator Bernie Sanders walks next to Amazon Labor Union leader Christian Smalls  during a rally outside the company building in Staten Island, New York City
Christian Smalls dresses and speaks like a worker. Here he meets US Senator Bernie Sanders at a union rally. Image: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Smalls believes one of the reasons ALU was successful is the organizers live, dress, and talk like other Amazon workers, many of whom are Black, immigrants, and other people of color.

"I want people to be able to look at me and look at the rest of us and say, I'm one of them. I see myself in them," he said. 

The ALU hasn't seen all success, however. The union lost its election at LDJ5, a sorting center across the street from JFK8, and Amazon is presently challenging their initial election victory with the NLRB.

With one of the world's most powerful companies as an opponent, ALU is waging a David vs. Goliath battle. But the union is attempting to scale. 

Workers from hundreds of Amazon facilities around the country have reached out to ALU, and workers at a warehouse in Campbellsville, Kentucky just became the first local chapter outside of Staten Island to file for a union election under the ALU umbrella.

Amazon's over one million workers are diverse, so Smalls believes successful organizing will mean overcoming lots of differences between employees.

"We have to build off a commonality, and the commonality is that the employer is the enemy. That's how we organize. We organize off the commonality of workers' issues in the warehouse," he said.

But ALU can't do it alone. Smalls is calling for unity among workers across the country. 

"Not just the Amazon Labor Union — we all have to stay together and continue pushing forward."

Edited by: Uwe Hessler