“The time is now”: Worker Perspective with Christian Smalls (Amazon Labor Union)

The leader of the first union in Amazon's history gives his thoughts on what makes for a successful campaign.
Wynnie Chan

Wynnie Chan spoke with Christian Smalls, one of the leaders of the Amazon Labor Union a couple months before their historic victory.

WC: How do you think unions can best counter Amazon’s anti-union messages or actions?

CS: We have to organize the workers. The workers have to pretty much organize themselves. There’s only so much a third party establishment can do on the outside. But the way we’re doing it, we have workers on the inside who are currently working there that are the key vital piece to countering the anti-union tactics. They’re able to see exactly what’s going on here, what’s going on in real time, and that gives us the opportunity to strategize around that. So building the Workers’ Committee, building strong solidarity within the work environment, that’s the only way to really counter it. 

WC: Given that ALU is an independent union, did you all ever consider working with national unions in your strategy, or did you just know from the start that this should be an independent movement?

CS: We never considered that. Of course, we stand in solidarity with the unions that are also organizing at Amazon. But the reason why we chose to go about this route is because we saw what happened with the last campaign in Alabama. We saw that Amazon was using the fact that they’re not inside the building, they don’t know the ins and outs, against them. And they’re not able to debunk a lot of the things that Amazon uses to get Amazon workers to not sign up. So what we’re doing at Staten Island is that we have organizers on the inside that can debunk anything that Amazon is spinning towards the workers. Instead of letting things linger and grow, we try to nip it in the bud, and we try to really get ahead of it. It helps our campaign to go from the inside-out instead of the outside-in.

WC: What other methods do you think were especially effective in convincing workers to unionize?

CS: The creativity of our strategies. The way we organize is not traditional. We’re more out in the open. We’re more transparent. I think that resonates with the workers when they see that their coworkers are speaking out in public spaces, and it really encourages the other workers to speak up as well. So we’re using a snowball effect, where we started a Workers’ Committee that’s really vocal and upfront. And now, we’re at a point in our campaign where workers are finally realizing that they’re doing this for a reason. We just have to wait until the workers are ready to really get on board. It can take time. They have to break out of their shell. We never know when they may come out. It could be 3 months into the campaign, 3 weeks into the campaign. We never would know.

WC: Do you have any key takeaways for future unionization efforts?

CS: The best advice I can offer is to make sure that you keep the workers in the driver’s seat. A lot of unions will want to help out, and politicians and politics get involved, and they lose the interest of the workers. The most important thing is to make sure that the workers’ voices are heard. Make sure that they feel empowered and make sure that they are supported in every way.

WC: Right, I remember reading how you said in Bessemer, bringing in politicians wasn’t exactly the best move because workers couldn’t resonate with them as well. 

CS: Workers at Amazon have 12 hour shifts and could have two and a half hour commutes. They don’t come home and turn on the news. They don’t come home and get on Twitter. They don’t see any of these things that we see on the outside, because they have family to take care of, and they have to go back to work. So, bringing in politicians and celebrities is only going to go so far. You have to make sure that the workers are organizing themselves.

WC: Besides being an independent union, how are your unionization efforts different from previous attempts?

CS: In 27 years of existence, I don’t think we have ever seen a campaign quite like the one we have. We have a mixture of Gen Z, Gen X organizers that are using social media. We’re using things like TikTok. The things that we’re using to reach the masses are completely 21st century, and that’s the difference compared to the 1900s and 1930s. They didn’t have all these tools that we have. We’re utilizing these tools and utilizing the media and being creative.

WC: Speaking of the media, all of these Amazon efforts have been heavily covered by the media. How has that shaped or influenced the campaign?

CS: Not much. The media is going to do what they want to do. We try to control the narrative by, once again, putting a lot of workers in interviews or putting them in a position to be interviewed, so they can tell their stories. But also, when it comes to bad publicity, that can also be a gift and a curse. Us withdrawing from our petition the first time around, that hurt us. So we had to make sure that we stayed grounded and got back to our basics, and our basics don’t include media. It’s just organizers doing exactly what they were doing from Day 1. And then, we pretty much strategized a creative way to get the momentum back on our side. And the fact is, we did stay resilient, and it put us in a position to refile again within a couple of weeks. 

WC: How would you best bring morale back and stay resilient? Especially since these processes take a very long time. 

CS: I remind everybody that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Along this campaign, there’s going to be small victories. There’s going to be small losses. We have to take them as they come. We build off the victories, and we learn from our mistakes. That’s the only way we can continue the longevity of this campaign. The reality is, not every day may be a good day.  We had days where we would sign maybe one or two people up. But then, there’s days where we’ll sign 150 people. So you never know what the day may bring. You have to keep being resilient and consistent. 

WC: Definitely. And I like how you mentioned something about building off the victories and learning from the mistakes. Could you expand on that, what do you think went right and what have you learned?

CS: We definitely learned a lot. We should have made our TikTok profile months ago, because it helped us with a lot of donations. Had we known, we probably would have started it Day 1. But that’s a growing pain. We’re still learning every single day. We have to learn something new every day, and if you have that mindset, when things do happen, you’ll have more options to use because you’re already thinking about it. I also realized that as a leader I have to try to stay 2 steps ahead of Amazon. That sounds crazy. But that’s exactly what I think about every single day when I wake up.

WC: I see, it’s difficult but it’s what you need to do, especially given their funds and resources. Did you have any prior experience in organizing or leadership? How prepared did you feel? 

CS: No, it’s funny. I wasn’t an organizer before I was terminated. But, Amazon pretty much prepared me for it. I was at the company for four and a half years. I’m a leader, just on a different team. So the principles that I learned at Amazon are actually the principles that I apply to organizing. Once again, I’m still new to organizing a union, but if you have leadership principles that you follow, it’s not that difficult to do what we’re doing. You just got to apply yourself. 

WC: Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for other workers who might feel reluctant, or they’re afraid to start the process of union organizing or make the call to a union?

CS: Yeah, the time is now. Don’t just quit your job. A lot of people are like, “You don’t like the job, just quit.” But that doesn’t change the system. Some people that I talk to out here are like, “Oh, well, I’m not gonna be here that long.” I tell them to sign it for the next person. Because the next person will be doing what you’re doing, and you’re going through a tough time. Why would you want that person to go through the same thing?

Transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

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