When a union targeted an Amazon warehouse in Alabama last year, organizers avoided provocation, holding rallies far from the facility and urging placard-carrying activists to stay off company property. 

Christian Smalls, an upstart labor leader hoping to unionize Amazon facilities in Staten Island, New York, has tossed that playbook. He has tweeted photos of Amazon consultants he deemed “union busters” and encouraged supporters to disrupt anti-union meetings inside the gigantic JFK8 warehouse. Meanwhile, he staked out the Amazon parking lot, handing out literature, playing loud rap music and buttonholing workers.

Time and again, Amazon says, it warned Smalls he was trespassing. Finally, on Feb. 23, the company called the police, and Smalls was arrested and charged with trespassing, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration. (Smalls says a judge promised to dismiss the charges so long as he isn’t charged with a crime again in the next six months.)

It’s hard to deny Smalls’ achievement. In mid-February and early March, his fledgling Amazon Labor Union won two victories: federal approval to hold a union election at one warehouse, and sufficient worker support to hold a vote at another facility nearby. The first election commenced on Friday and will run through March 30, while the second vote is set for the last week in April. If successful, Smalls will have created the first union to breach Amazon’s U.S. warehouses, and perhaps cemented his position as the face of a new labor movement.

In Amazon, Smalls confronts a deep-pocketed foe that defeated the efforts to unionize the Alabama warehouse last year. The novice organizer has made rookie mistakes, including failing to gather enough employee signatures in his first attempt to force an election at the JFK8 warehouse. But he and his allies have come this far with little support from organized labor. 

“I know I’m a misfit, there’s no shame in my game,” Smalls says. “I say what I say and that’s what got me here. The same thing with the union: It represents what the workers want to say.”

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In an emailed statement, Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said: “Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

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Smalls, 33, grew up in New Jersey, playing basketball and football, and running track, at Hackensack High School. He had a short stint as an independent rapper (one of his songs can be found on Amazon, though it can’t be played or purchased) but abandoned those aspirations after having twins, a boy and girl now age 9. From 2012 to 2015, Smalls worked stints at Walmart, Home Depot, a grocery warehouse distributor and MetLife Stadium. He toiled at Amazon warehouses for a couple of years, then in 2018 went to work at the then-new JFK8 center in Staten Island, where he supervised employees picking items.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, Smalls and thousands of his colleagues became so-called essential workers, who were expected to pick, pack and ship products to home-bound customers. No one knew if COVID-19 was circulating in the warehouse, and Amazon was then providing little guidance.

After workers began calling in sick and showing up with symptoms, Smalls and colleague Derrick Palmer organized a walkout. Not long after, Amazon told Smalls to stay home because he had possibly been in contact with an infected colleague. Smalls showed up for a rally and was fired. 

As tensions rose in Staten Island, Amazon executives discussed the situation on a call. In a leaked transcript of the meeting published by Vice, General Counsel David Zapolsky suggested focusing attention on Smalls, who is Black, because he “wasn’t smart or articulate.” Critics decried the comments as racist. Zapolsky later apologized and denied that his remarks were racially motivated.

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With COVID spreading across the U.S., Smalls started the Congress of Essential Workers, which mostly traveled around the country protesting Amazon and founder Jeff Bezos. Smalls and his associates weren’t above pulling stunts of questionable taste, once deploying a mock guillotine outside a Bezos mansion. These antics alienated some activists, who believed Smalls was just seeking attention.

“You have to be more strategic,” says Adrienne Williams, a former Amazon delivery driver and member of the Congress of Essential Workers. “He wanted the publicity that came with that fake protesting.” Smalls denies that.

Williams and other members of the group also signed a public letter criticizing Smalls for failing to set up a nonprofit and for using money raised on a personal GoFundMe page for his advocacy. Williams says she felt Smalls was blurring the lines between his activism and his own needs. An attorney for Smalls sent the signees a cease-and-desist letter after the missive spread online. “The money I raised, people donated to me personally,” Smalls says. “What I did with that money is what I did with it.”

Started in April 2021, the Amazon Labor Union targeted four facilities that, according to the company, employ about 10,000 workers. Attempting to sell the benefits of union membership to that many people is a daunting task; last year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, bargaining units comprised about 60 people on average. 

Smalls argues that his union has a better shot at winning the election than more established players like the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which lost in Alabama and is currently contesting a do-over vote there that ends March 28.

Smalls has projected a fun-loving, we’re-just-like-you vibe to win over workers — dancing, joking around and snapping selfies while collecting signatures. He wanted to avoid what he views as mistakes made in Bessemer, where the union touted support from politicians and celebrities.

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While organized labor can draw on union dues to help finance campaigns such as the one in Bessemer, Smalls says he has mostly relied on GoFundMe to fund the ALU’s activities — raising more than $100,000 since April 2021. Early on in the campaign, Smalls also accepted legal assistance and help collecting signatures from the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Smalls says the union is still paying the fees for an ALU attorney. He doesn’t take a salary, and says he has relied on money raised on his GoFundMe page along with financial support from family and friends.

The Staten Island saga has made Smalls into something of a media darling and earned him qualified praise from RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum, who said in an interview: “I’ll give him credit for taking advantage of the moment and the groundwork that was laid by the Bessemer campaign. I want him and everyone else organizing Amazon workers to be successful.” John Logan, the department chair of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, says the ALU’s independence prevented Amazon from defining itself as a job creator standing up to Big Labor. “I hate the word optics,” he says. “But the optics are kind of ‘Amazon the corporate bully trying to crush the little guy who’s on the side of the workers.’ ” Calling the police on Smalls, he adds, risked backfiring.

Gauging the strength of ALU support isn’t easy. Unions need only collect signatures from 30% of workers to force an election, meaning the rest of the workforce could be pro or anti-union. “A lot of people are on the fence,” says one worker, who plans to vote in favor of unionizing. The election in Bessemer was instructive. Despite months of campaigning and support from politicians including President Joe Biden, the union lost by a 2 to 1 margin.

Smalls has refrained from setting out a detailed agenda should the ALU win but says he has surveyed workers to assess their priorities. Among them: bringing back monthly productivity bonuses, giving hourly workers Amazon stock and raising pay to $30 an hour, up from about $18 an hour now. 

“If we lose, it’s not the end of the ALU, it’s really the beginning,” Smalls says. “We have a couple of chances here. We’re hoping that we’ll be successful the first time around.”