Christian Smalls

Critical Voices: Chris Smalls

In July 2017, Jeff Bezos, the founder and chairman of Amazon, surpassed Bill Gates to become the richest person in the world, with an estimated wealth of $112 billion. That year, the average worker at Amazon, according to its own reports, made $28,446. Income inequality is a hallmark of American society—and capitalism itself—but the past few decades since the first tech boom have seen the gap between the rich and the poor widen drastically, a trend that intensified during Covid-19 lockdowns when knowledge workers and executives were able to work safely from home while essential workers put their own lives at risk to deliver groceries, medicine, and toilet paper.

As it has become more obvious how much of a functioning society is dependent on the labor of those who are frequently overlooked, a nascent movement for labor rights has flourished into a resurgence of unionizing across the country. For Chris Smalls, who helped found the Amazon Labor Union in 2021 and oversaw the successful vote at his former workplace, the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, a year later, Covid-19 provided a needed boost of momentum for the cause. "The pandemic helped us a lot in realizing, being essential workers, that we deserve a lot more," he says. "If workers realize that, they'll organize their workplaces instead of just quitting their jobs and moving to the next one."

Smalls, who grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, first joined Amazon in 2015 and transferred to JFK8 to help open the facility in 2018. During a period of rapid growth and operations optimization, he worked his way up to assistant manager but was not promoted further despite dozens of applications and a record of strong performance, which he attributes to systemic racism at the company. It was only recently, however, that what he calls his "honeymoon phase" came to an end and he recognized the full breadth of Amazon's issues. "I was just a pawn in the machine and I didn't realize it until 2020 when the pandemic hit how pretty much disposable I was," he explains. "It didn't matter that I opened up three buildings. It didn't matter that I was this model employee, a great supervisor there that trained thousands of workers. It didn't matter to them. I was nothing but a number that can just be replaced at any given time."

Amazon's business multiplied rapidly in the spring of 2020 when customers began stocking up in preparation for lockdowns, but the company offered little in the way of personal protective equipment to its floor workers, who continued to work in close quarters packing up deliveries twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. On March 30, 2020, Smalls organized a walkout protesting the lack of safety protocols with his coworker Derrick Palmer and was fired the next day. He founded the Congress of Essential Workers, which organized a May Day strike focusing on large retailers nationwide and became the Amazon Labor Union the following year. Smalls and his fellow organizers worked tirelessly for twelve months before the April 1, 2022, vote at JFK8, which the union won by a narrow margin in a surprise victory. Subsequent votes at other Amazon locations have all ended in defeat, but Smalls says the focus now is on continuing to encourage organizing while preparing for upcoming contract negotiations with the company—which, based on Amazon's reputation for litigiousness and procrastination, are sure to be drawn-out and contentious. "Number one is always going to be health and safety, for sure," he explains of the ALU's position. "Definitely wages, job security is second, of course, and better, fairer promotion policies, better medical leave options, having a pension, making everybody shareholders again, providing free college tuition. That'll be our main set of demands."

Recently, the media has focused on infighting at the organization, but Smalls says that he is still finding his way as an organizer and notes that the ALU is a grassroots organization taking on one of the largest corporations in the history of the world. "I still consider myself to be a rookie, sophomore year, new to the organizing realm. It's definitely a learning experience every day. I learn something new every day, whether it's on the ground, whether it's legally, and I just soak it in," he says. "Being one of the leaders, I have to learn every day. I have to answer questions. I have to ask questions. We're still learning our way and our identity and to navigate that on a day-to-day basis is the biggest challenge. How do you stay grounded in the basics but also expand to reach different masses in the working class? It's always going to be a challenge in this country."

Smalls has been criticized by some for a lack of focus as his packed travel schedule takes him across the country and around the world to speak to other workers who are considering unionizing, as well as at a number of conferences and high schools. He insists that he remains determined to hammer out a contract for JFK8 while stressing the necessity of taking advantage of the current political moment, in which a renewed passion for organizing is having an impact everywhere from suburban Starbucks shops to southern school bus factories, to establish and invigorate a long-lasting and wide-ranging movement. "I'm telling everybody the time is now. We're at a point of no return in society. Ever since the pandemic being a catalyst for a lot of strikes and walkouts and the resurgence of labor, you're seeing the younger generation take that by the reins and really lead the way. People are paying attention now—I think that's the most powerful thing," he says. "Now I think the younger generation feels like this struggle is their struggle as well. They're more motivated than ever to get involved. I'm very happy to be a part and not only witness that but also help amplify it."

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Hair by Helene Marie. Makeup by Laramie at Day One Studio. Photographer's assistant: Benjamin Oliver.

As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.