How Chris Smalls created the first Amazon union in the US and what’s next

When more than 2,600 workers on Staten Island, New York, a warehouse called JFK8 voted to join the first Amazon union in the US April was a historic moment.

But this was only the first step towards a contract. One week after the union’s victory in the JFK8 elections, Amazon filed 25 objections with the National Labor Relations Board, including allegations that union leaders bribed workers with marijuana and harassed those who did not support the union.

“We had to organize the best environment for us psychologically as well. So we played music, handed out food, books, weed, whatever it took to change the culture of the building,” said Chris Smalls, co-founder and interim union president of Amazon.

Amazon fired Smalls from JFK8 in March 2020 after he led a strike to force the company to improve its COVID-19 security protocols. Amazon says it has received multiple warnings for violating social distancing rules. A few days later, inner memory leaked, in which Amazon’s general counsel called Smalls “not smart or eloquent”.

“You know, that was the moment that motivated me to keep going, especially after I just got fired,” Smalls said.

For the past five weeks, Smalls and other organizers of the grassroots ALU have resisted Amazon’s objections to the union’s victory during public testimony. The hearing came to an end on Monday, and the NLRB has yet to issue a decision.

Meanwhile, last Sunday, dozens of Amazon workers rallied at another New York warehouse in Albany, the latest in a string of Amazon employees trying to unionize. These steps are taking place against the backdrop of recent flurry of organizational events that swept other large US companiesalso with the first alliances formed in Starbucks, Apple, Google, Microsoft, REI and Trader Joe.

Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer at the temporary Amazon headquarters in Staten Island, New York, June 15, 2022.

Katy Shkulov

“The real work definitely starts now”

CNBC met with Smalls and fellow ALU founding member Derrick Palmer to hear about their battle and what happens next if the union is upheld.

“The real work is definitely starting now,” Smalls said. “We have to get this company to the negotiating table, which we know they don’t want to do.”

The ALU’s victory was especially unusual because it is a small, independent union, very different from the large and powerful unions that have historically been successful in big companies and collecting dues from hundreds of thousands of workers. The Retailers, Wholesalers and Department Stores Union, which represents about 100,000 US members, has led several unsuccessful campaigns unionize another Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, in recent months. Union has filed 21 objections to the last electoral defeat.

“RWDSU is an established union, but we’ve noticed a few shortcomings in their action plan,” Palmer said. “If you don’t have organizers inside the facility, it’s hard to maintain morale. It’s hard to resist what Amazon is doing with these captive audience gatherings.”

If the NLRB decides in favor of the union, a committee of ALU representatives and employees will negotiate with Amazon managers, presenting proposals and exchanging counter-proposals until both parties reach an agreement. Achieving the first contract usually takes months, if not more.

“Often employers decide to really delay the process to make it more difficult. And sometimes I’ve been in campaigns where the process of getting the first contract could take a few years before you get it,” said Sarita Gupta, co-author of “The Future We Need: Organizing a Better Democracy for the 21st Century.”

One of the main demands that ALU plans to bring to the negotiating table is a $30 minimum wage. Amazon says its average hourly pay is currently $18, with a minimum of $15. The federal minimum wage is $7.25. walmartMinimum per hour is $12. Amazon competitiveness social package includes first day health insurance, fully paid family leave, and college tuition support. But Gupta says the organizers should get some credit for it.

“Amazon management did not come to this on its own. For example, we decided to suddenly raise wages. It took movement, it took workers in their jobs to get organized,” Gupta said.

Amazon said in a statement: “Our employees have the choice to join a union or not. They have always done this. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. We remain focused on work. directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

Amazon didn’t let CNBC inside JFK8 for this story, but instead gave us a tour of EWR9, a warehouse in Carteret, New Jersey. Last week a worker died on EWR9 during the annual Prime Day hype. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the death, although no details have been released.

OSHA is also investigating working conditions in Amazon warehouses in three other states.

Entrance to an EWR9 Amazon warehouse in Carteret, NJ shown June 16, 2022. An Amazon worker died on EWR9 during the annual Prime Day peak on July 13, 2022.

Katy Shkulov

Workers say they face a grueling pace of work, with strict limits on the amount of “off time” they can take, commonly referred to as TOT. This has been a problem in large warehouses, where it can take minutes to get to a toilet a football field away. JFK8 workers are asking for more transparency on how they are tracked and penalized for TOT.

“One day you come to work and they say, ‘Oh, we’ve been tracking this for a long time.’ They made TOT. And here it is. There is no word, no refutation, no justification of my deed. That’s all. You know they take you out the door,” Smalls said.

Amazon says that in 2021, just 0.4% of employees were fired for failing to get the job done. Still, internal leak a 2021 study shows that Amazon’s turnover is 159%, almost three times that of Amazon. general transport and storage sector — which means he fires the equivalent of all his warehouse workers more than once a year. Amazon predicts that “by 2024, the available workforce on the US network will be exhausted.”

Rise time

Recent CNBC poll found that 59% of U.S. workers say they support union expansion in their workplaces, and in the first six months of fiscal year 2022, the NLRB saw The number of trade union applications increased by 57%. compared to last year, there is a big surge of intentions to unite in trade unions. The growth in organization comes against the backdrop of what labor experts call the perfect storm: four decades of stagnant wagesthe pandemic, which brought record profits to companies and added frustration to workers, and pro-union administration.

In May, the organizers of Smalls, Starbucks and others invited to the White House meet the president Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris. But amid the Great Resignation and labor shortages, critics say workers have power whether they unionize or not.

“My message to these workers: if you are unhappy with the job, 11.3 million vacancies there. Some of them are for you,” said Diana Ferchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the US Department of Labor.

While polls and reports show union support is high, actual union membership remains at its lowest level in decades. In 2021, US union membership was at 10.3%. This is less than 10.8% in 2020. and up from 20% in 1983. almost 35% at its peak in 1954.

“I know we’ve made history and it’s been great to experience it with the world, but we know we’re far from, you know, our final road and we want to make sure what we’re doing here will last. for a long time. forever, not just for a moment,” Smalls said.

The father-of-three has traveled the country holding rallies in support of other Amazon warehouses that are trying to unite. But it’s not always successful: across the street from JFK8, ALU made an unsuccessful attempt to consolidate a new, smaller warehouse called LDJ5.

When asked what other warehouses he was negotiating with, Smalls replied: “The whole country. You know, every day this list is growing.”

Derrick Palmer, co-founder of the Amazon union, stands outside the National Labor Relations Council’s New York regional office after workers filed a petition asking for an election to form a union in Brooklyn on Monday, Oct. 1. 25, 2021.

Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images