Same-Day Solidarity At Amazon with Chris Smalls | Crooked Media
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April 05, 2022
What A Day
Same-Day Solidarity At Amazon with Chris Smalls

In This Episode

  • Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, voted to form the company’s first union in the U.S. last Friday, making a historic win for labor organizers everywhere. The union earned recognition in less than a year into its existence, and it overcame multiple arrests as well as millions that Amazon spent on anti-union consultants. Chris Smalls, founder of the Amazon Labor Union, joins us to discuss how it felt to win and what comes next.
  • And in headlines: Sacramento police arrested a suspect in connection to Sunday’s mass shooting in the city, the Senate reached a bipartisan $10 billion deal to fund COVID relief, and Elon Musk purchased about $2.9 billion worth of Twitter stock.


Show Notes:



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Gideon Resnick: It’s Tuesday, April 5th. I’m Gideon Resnick.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, where we’re hoping Sarah Palin becomes the first former contestant on The Masked Singer to lose a race for Congress.


Gideon Resnick: Yes, she entered into a special Alaska election last week. They said that if she loses it, she has to keep doing the masked rap from the show in perpetuity.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, uh-huh.


Gideon Resnick: I don’t, it’s Alaska rules, I don’t know. On this show, two major international reports say that now is the time to act on climate change before it is too late.


Josie Duffy Rice: Spoiler alert?


Gideon Resnick: Well, yeah. Plus, Elon Musk buys billions in Twitter stock.


Josie Duffy Rice: But first, we are going to dive deeper on the historic win that Amazon workers earned last Friday at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York. The Amazon Labor Union, or ALU is independent and was formed by workers. It earned recognition for a union less than a year into its existence, which is basically unheard of and without a lot of comparisons to draw upon. So it has been an eventful time for workers there, and especially for Chris Smalls, who founded ALU. Gideon, you got a chance to catch up with him yesterday. Is that right?


Gideon Resnick: Yes. So last Friday, when all this was happening actually marked almost two years to the day since Smalls was fired from that very facility after he staged a walkout to protest health and safety measures that Amazon had taken, or rather, not taken, as the pandemic was bearing down on New York City. Not long after that, as I’m sure a lot of people will remember, a memo leaked where Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, referred to Smalls as quote, “Not smart or articulate.”


Josie Duffy Rice: Very, very cool thing to say.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Fueled in part by that and the initial defeat of efforts to unionize at a separate Amazon facility in Alabama, Smalls began to organize his former coworkers. Many barbecues, bus stop conversations, and the like later they won, and they overcame millions that Amazon spent on anti-union consultants and even multiple arrests. So Smalls and I have spoken a number of times on this show over the last couple of years. But I, of course, wanted to check in with him again now. And I started by asking how it felt to win last week and what he’s been hearing.


Chris Smalls: We’ve been contacting farm workers from all over the world, from here to South Africa, from here to India, Canada, Australia. It’s just been amazing to share this experience with, you know, the whole nation number one. In New York City, definitely, Staten Island, creating history, and also the world as well.


Gideon Resnick: When you look back on this, what do you think the Union did the best like throughout the campaign? And is there actually anything that you would change in terms of how you did it?


Chris Smalls: Absolutely not. I love how this campaign came together. We definitely had our bumps and bruises, but staying independent, staying working late, that’s the best way to go when you’re talking about Amazon because we know the ins and outs of company. We live the reality of the situation, we know the grievances, we know the concerns, we know the language, you know, and we come from the community. You know, the workers appreciate that we’re actually just ordinary people trying to do the right thing for them.


Gideon Resnick: You and some workers at the facility were arrested earlier this year. Is your sense that what Amazon did in terms of how heavy-handed it was against the union ended up backfiring? Did that help get people to understand what was at stake?


Chris Smalls: Absolutely. Of course, after your arrest, some of the organizers, not once, but twice, then you arrest me, that definitely turned some workers against Amazon for that because they felt that we were just doing our normal things. You know, it’s not like we’re staying on a property or trespassing. We should have been treated, I should have been treated like any other delivery service [unclear] like I normally do anyway. And when the video came out, people that were undecided or on the fence about ALU, that was the turning point for them.


Gideon Resnick: Right, right. This is definitely a huge collective effort, obviously, and it’s not exclusively about you, but I think Amazon did in a lot of cases, sort of make this about you. You know, obviously, in the case of the General Counsel David Zapolsky, you know, referring to you in that meeting as, you know, quote unquote “not smart or articulate.” What would you say to him now if you had an opportunity to sort of talk to him, knowing what we know now?


Chris Smalls: That didn’t age well for him. I let the work speak for itself. You know, I got the last laugh. You know, he got the letter, you know, the letter that we sent the General Manager with our demands, we made sure we forwarded to his email as well. Now he has to come bargain with us, and that’s the most beautiful thing to bring the worker pretty much to Seattle on paper.


Gideon Resnick: Right. I was reading a little bit about this in the last couple of days and it was really interesting. I think it was Connor Spence who was talking to Bloomberg, and he said that there are these calculated risks that ALU was taking, like requesting that vote when you had basically sort of a bare minimum of support going in, instead of waiting a little bit longer. Can you talk a little bit more about that? And sort of, I don’t know if you’d call them risks, but for the sake of the question, risks that ended up paying off.


Chris Smalls: Yeah, we did a lot of those. Most traditional campaigns establish unions. They wait until they get about 80% of the building to file for petition. Obviously, with Amazon’s turnover rate, you’re not getting 80% of the building. So we had no choice but to get going with the minimum, which is 30%. And once we got in with the 30%, we knew that we had a small window to start to increase that percentage, and that’s exactly what we did. The numbers don’t lie. You know, we got 55% of the workers vote to yes.


Gideon Resnick: Right. I think a lot of people are trying to look back and understand how this went differently. So I guess when you think about it, like, what if anything, does this mean for organizing with more traditional unions? Like how did this change people’s idea of how this can happen?


Chris Smalls: They had 28 years to do it. You know, that’s all the established unions, you know, and we did it in 11 months. So it says that it has to come from the workers to me. The workers have to organize themselves, and that’s exactly what the ALU represents, we are the actual Amazon workers, whether we’re current or former. Any established union, I’m not deterring them from organizing, it’s just that when they do organize the buildings, they have to make sure that they’re building with their workers first. They have to educate themselves on how Amazon operates. Other than that, they won’t be able to get it done if they think that the traditional style of unionizing is going to work because it’s just not.


Gideon Resnick: Can you talk to people about what happens next year and what conversations have been like so far about actually bargaining for a contract?


Chris Smalls: Yeah, right now, you know, we have to get some more legal representation. But in the meantime, in between time, you know, we got to prepare for a second election, which is in three weeks. So we got a lot on our plate right now, but I’m confident in my team, you know? Somehow, some way we’re going to get it done.


Gideon Resnick: What are some of the things that you want to make sure gets into the contract, or what are the things that people are talking about they want to see in there?


Chris Smalls: Well, number one, we’re fighting for higher wages. We’re proposing $3,000. We’re fighting for job security, better medical leave options, longer breaks, making everybody a shareholder again (which they stopped in 2018), making sure that they bring back the BCP program for the veteran Amazon workers. We were getting monthly bonuses for attendance and productivity. We want to include that back in the contract. And obviously having a pension, free college for yourself and your children, creating a shuttle bus service for workers that need to travel to the ferry. You know, all the things that is affordable that Amazon could do in the short term, we want to start working on that right away.


Gideon Resnick: I’m curious also, do you see any similarities between what ALU is doing and can do with Amazon facilities and what’s happening at Starbucks, where it sort of seemed like it’s just a couple of locations and then all of a sudden, you know, with Starbucks, we’re talking about like hundreds across the country.


Chris Smalls: Absolutely. We’ll be able to branch out and spread like wildfire, just like Starbucks. It’s going to take us a little bit more time because we don’t have 12 people in the bargaining unit. We’re talking, you know, thousands. So it’s going to take us some time. But I’m confident that you’ll start to see more unions pop up with Amazon, especially under the ALU branch, in due time.


Gideon Resnick: So Josie, that was my conversation with Chris Smalls, the founder of the Amazon Labor Union. We’re going to follow the next election the union faces later in April, as well as the contract fights to come. In the meantime, though, it would appear that Amazon is not backing off their anti-union efforts. In fact, just the opposite. According to a report in The Intercept that we’ll link to in the show notes, there is a planned internal worker chat app that the company wants to roll out, in which the words “union”, “restrooms” and “plantation”, among others, would be banned. Now for what it’s worth, the app was first conceived by Amazon executives back in 2021. A spokesperson for Amazon has also contested that these words will be screened out. But it’s a pretty wild story nonetheless.


Josie Duffy Rice: It is, and the fact that we could all really believe that it’s true really says something.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah.


Josie Duffy Rice: You know, the past few days have been pretty packed with labor news in general. So what else is going on?


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, a lot has happened. So as you mentioned on yesterday’s show, the results are inconclusive so far in the do-over vote at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama. The number of contested ballots there would actually determine the final outcome because the yes and no votes are quite close. So at this point, we’re waiting to see what the National Labor Relations Board decides in terms of those ballots. Meanwhile, the unionizing effort that is sweeping Starbucks continues to gain momentum. The Reserve Roastery in New York City’s Chelsea actually voted to unionize last Friday as well. That makes it the first flagship store to do that, and the 10th unionized store across the country. Then yesterday, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that he was suspending the company’s stock repurchasing program on his first day back at the helm. That is apparently intended to free up more money to invest in personnel and stores. So who knows, really, but it definitely feels like a response to the union push. He also said this during a town hall meeting:


[clip of Howard Schultz] We can’t ignore what is happening in the country as it relates to companies throughout the country being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionization.


Josie Duffy Rice: Assaulted. What a word choice.


Gideon Resnick: Crazy.


Josie Duffy Rice: Just really incredible. Incredible PR that they have.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, that it’s going to get interesting. Meanwhile, another lead union organizer said that she had been fired yesterday. And the NLRB had already issued a complaint against Starbucks for accusations that the company retaliated against other workers in Arizona who were seeking to unionize. So we’ll definitely be following updates there and throughout the labor movement soon, but that is the latest for now. We are going to be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: Sacramento police arrested one suspect yesterday in connection to Sunday’s mass shooting in the city’s downtown. They charged 26-year old Dandrae Martin with assault and illegal firearm possession. Officials also confirmed the identities of the six victims killed and announced that 7 of the 12 surviving victims have been released from hospitals. Many other details of the shooting still have not been confirmed, including how it actually began, but police said they recovered at least two handguns. In other news, the man responsible for the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida went on trial yesterday. Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty to all charges, 17 counts of murder and 17 more for attempted murder. Jury selection began yesterday, and it will be up to the jurors to decide whether Cruz receives life in prison or the death penalty. The trial is expected to take weeks, but Cruz’s attorneys say that if it is too difficult to find impartial jurors in Broward County, where the shooting took place, then they may ask the judge to change the trial’s location to elsewhere in Florida.


Josie Duffy Rice: A tag team of international reports came out yesterday with a clear message on the environment, a message that every policymaker should consider getting tattooed on themselves so they don’t forget. Maybe tattooed on their forehead! Might as well just get it tattooed on your face at this point.


Gideon Resnick: Please.


Josie Duffy Rice: Countries around the world need to take strong steps to curb climate change or else. The first came from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In its latest report, the panel said that if countries can’t slash greenhouse gas emissions roughly 43% by the end of this decade then the Earth will warm up by over 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. It sounds like a little, but the panel says that just those few degrees will trigger worsening floods, more wildfires, and droughts, and the collapse of various ecosystems. To prevent this from happening, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the countries must pledge to do more than they are now.


[clip of UN SG Antonio Guterres] Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals, but the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.


Josie Duffy Rice: Meanwhile, the World Health Organization, or W.H.O., published its own report yesterday on climate. It said that 99% of the world’s population breathes unhealthy air, choked with pollutants. That can lead to health issues like respiratory diseases, cardiovascular issues, and more. As part of its report, the W.H.O. also called on countries to help clear the air by cutting their dependence on fossil fuels.


Gideon Resnick: You have my permission to be incensed about everything. I don’t have anything else to say.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s pretty bad. It’s pretty bad.


Gideon Resnick: The pandemic is officially back on from the federal government’s perspective, as the Senate reached a bipartisan $10 billion deal yesterday to fund COVID relief. They had failed to reach an agreement last month. This new aid is going to go towards buying therapeutics and antivirals, along with more tests and vaccines. Now, Democrats had hoped for a larger package that included more funding for global vaccination efforts, demonstrating a keen understanding of the concept of a global pandemic.


Josie Duffy Rice: Isn’t that funny?


Gideon Resnick: But during negotiations, Republicans were on-brand cheap and demanded to repurpose unspent money from 2021’s pandemic relief to be used in this new package. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer released a statement saying quote, “Many Democrats and Republicans are committed to pursuing a second supplemental later this spring.” Schumer also said President Joe Biden supports this compromise and wants Congress to quickly pass this bill.


Josie Duffy Rice: There comes a time in every troll’s life where he wants a bridge he can call his own, and for Elon Musk that time is now. Yesterday, the Tesla CEO finalized the purchase of about $2.9 billion dollars’ worth of Twitter stock, making him the largest individual shareholder on the platform where he regularly creates chaos.


Gideon Resnick: Wow.


Josie Duffy Rice: Musk owns 9.2% of Twitter now. And to put that into perspective, the recently departed CEO and co-founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, only owns 2.25%. The market responded favorably to the news of Musk’s acquisition, with Twitter’s stock price rising by 22%. But Musk has planned for his shiny new toy is uncertain. His 9% stake is considered passive, but he could still do a lot to influence the company, and his posting history as a vaccine skeptic and self-styled free speech defender has some insiders concerned that he’ll try to push Twitter in a more libertarian and permissive direction. Because if there’s one thing Twitter needs, it’s more posts.


Gideon Resnick: Certainly.


Josie Duffy Rice: Musk’s first tweet as a major shareholder read–Are you ready?–Quote, “Oh hi, lol.” And it received over half a million likes, reflecting a level of engagement that is truly worth any price.


Gideon Resnick: We need to get our investors together and get up to 9.3% collectively, and then in all of the meetings, whatever Elon says gets outweighed by us. I think we can do it as a team.


Josie Duffy Rice: I think so, too, and I think everybody listening should take it upon themselves to ensure that we have the money necessary to buy 9.3% of Twitter. So ask your friends, sell some wrapping paper, sell some Girl Scout cookies, but give us the money, etc.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, look for those coins in your couch, you know? It can’t be that much.


Josie Duffy Rice: It can’t be that much.


Gideon Resnick: We are the 9.3%.


Josie Duffy Rice: That’s true.


Gideon Resnick: And we are coming.


Josie Duffy Rice: We are coming for you.


Gideon Resnick: And those are the headlines. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe leave a review, bye Twitter back from Elon, and tell your friends to listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you are into reading, and not just tattoos reminding world leaders about global warming like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. So check it out and subscribe at I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Gideon Resnick: I am Gideon Resnick.


[together] And keep rapping, Sarah!


Josie Duffy Rice: Just rap you way to the losing end of this congressional race.


Gideon Resnick: Sure, to all of the above, is my response. Sure.


Josie Duffy Rice: Oh boy.


Gideon Resnick: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.