Christian Smalls, an unexpected union leader who wants to change Amazon

Posted on Sunday May 1, 2022 at 08:02

With his colorful jacket emblazoned with the slogan “Eat the Rich”, a few meters from the bus stop where he has spent countless hours trying to persuade Amazon employees to set up a union, Christian Smalls is being questioned by all stocks.

The president of the Amazon Workers’ Union (ALU), who caused a stir in early April by becoming the company’s first union in the United States, is walking on the sidewalk he knows so well, along a road in an industrial district of New York.

He’ll soon know if, after the JFK8 warehouse, he’s convinced the staff of the sorting center across the street, LDJ5. Voting took place April 25-29, and counting will begin Monday afternoon.

“The waves are positive,” he says.

A week before the result, veteran unionists want to have their picture taken with him, journalists attack him with questions, and his team members question him about the organization. He just shared the podium with two superstars from the American left, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and is preparing to lead a new career.

Christian Smalls, 33, unemployed, worked at JFK8 warehouse until March 2020.

With the advent of the Covid-19 epidemic, faced with a still unknown and devastating virus, he protested against the lack of protection and called for a small blow.

Protesting doesn’t gather crowds but it does attract attention, at least on Amazon. He will be fired after two days, officially for not respecting sanitary rules.

– Meals, hemp and copper –

According to an internal memo leaked to the press shortly after, a senior company official said of him that he was “not smart and doesn’t know how to express himself clearly” and that he should be “the face of the entire union movement”.

“That’s what I’ve become,” he told AFP two years later.

Meanwhile, he has demonstrated in front of several residences of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to advocate for the rights of essential workers. He also went in the spring of 2021 to support activists trying to form a syndicate in an Amazon warehouse in Alabama.

After this trip, they and a small team decided to try their luck in New York in their own way without the support of a traditional organization.

Christian Smalls will be a mainstay at the bus stop, as he waits for shift changes to chat with staff.

Others—his friend Derek Palmer, a few employees convinced of the fighting interest and a handful of activists purposely assigned to Amazon to take part in the fight—work in the break rooms.

They listen, they tirelessly explain what the union is, they prepare food, they distribute a little weed. To get into the night shifts, they sometimes light the braziers.

Experts in labor movements give them little chance.

Ils n’ont presque pas d’argent, disent-ils: avant le premier vote, ils ont récolté 120,000 dollars via des campagnes de financement sur internet et autres ventes de tee-shirts, quand Amazon a dépensé 4,3 millions pour contrer leur countryside.

With the help of a volunteer lawyer, they formally submitted their application to organize a vote after obtaining the signature of 30% of employees, when traditional unions often expect to have at least 50%.

Their leader is unknown.

– the spark –

In his rapper style, this African American “doesn’t sound like a traditional union leader,” admits Justin Medina, a member of the ALU.

But, she says, “He’s awesome, knows how to inspire people, customize tasks to work for everyone, and bring people together.” She asserts that all the media attention “does not go to his head, he remains humble”.

To celebrate the union’s April 1 victory, dressed in red from hat to sneaker, he still jumped from the building where the count was done before spouting his champagne. Ironically, I thank Jeff Bezos for going into space while they campaign on Earth.

ALU arrived just in time. After the pandemic and harsh working conditions for essential workers, in the midst of inflation, employees are ready to demand more. And in a tight job market, they know the ball is in their court.

Starbucks, Apple and Alphabet also face plans to form unions.

Christian Smalls hopes the ALU will “be the spark that will spark a full-blown movement at Amazon.”

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