When Amazon employee Christian Smalls organized a walkout in protest of safety conditions two years ago, he was promptly fired and smeared by Amazon as “not smart or articulate.” This April, Smalls, along with some colleagues, facilitated a historic pro-union vote at the fiercely anti-union company’s warehouse in Staten Island. The vote was narrow (2,654 voted to unionize, 2,131 opposed) and shocking: it was the first-ever Amazon unionization effort in the United States to succeed, which experts predicted would be impossible.
Last year, Amazon workers (allegedly, the validity of the votes is contested) voted against an effort to join a well-established union in Bessemer, Alabama. So, what made Smalls’ effort different?
Smalls started the independent Amazon Labor Union and raised $120,000 for his effort on GoFundMe. Rather than the conventional use of authorization cards, his outreach took the form of Tiktok videos, bonfires, barbecues, and phone banking. The fact that his effort was worker-led and personal, experts explain, could point to a new strategy for union organizing: when a movement starts from within, it establishes workers’ trust in the union.
This unionization could spark campaigns across the country, and this seems all the more likely as rising inflation worsens workers’ anxieties surrounding their wages. Moreover, days after Staten Island, President Joe Biden expressed his support for labor unions at the national conference of North America’s Building Trades Unions, “By the way, Amazon, here we come. Watch.” Biden called for the Senate to pass legislation that would stop the forcing of workers into mandatory anti-union meetings. The use of these meetings is one of Amazon’s many anti-union tactics. The company has additionally spent millions on anti-union consultation and hung “Vote No” banners in their facilities.
After the victory at Staten Island, Amazon will undoubtedly reconsider conditions for its workers. As misconceptions surrounding unions are dispelled, there is a world of potential in labor organizations with a new worker-to-worker approach.