Welcome to the seventh installment of NPI at Netroots Nation 2022, a special limited podcast series recorded live from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. NPI staff journeyed to Steel City this past week to participate in the nation’s largest annual gathering of progressive activists.
As part of our conference coverage, we’re bringing you a series of conversations with key movement leaders and elected officials.
In this installment of NPI@NN, we’re honored to be joined by Chris Smalls, lead organizer and president of the Amazon Labor Union! Press play below to listen to the audio, or read the transcript below.
Read the transcript
(Note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity)
CAYA: Welcome to NPI at Netroots Nation ‘22, a special limited podcast series from the Northwest Progressive Institute recorded live from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! I’m your host, Caya Berndt. We are so glad to have you with us.
For this installment, we are thrilled to be joined by Amazon Labor Union organizer and President, Chris Smalls. Thank you for joining us, Chris!
CHRIS: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
CAYA: Yeah. Thank you for joining us. So, [could you provide] just a brief introduction for our listeners, tell us about who you are and what you do.
CHRIS: Yeah, I’m a former Amazon employee that was hired back in 2015. I became a process assistant, or better known as assistant manager, my first year, was in that position for four and a half years. And in 2020 of March, I was fired for leading a walkout over COVID-19. After that, Jeff Bezos himself, along with his general counsel, who had a meeting calling me “not smart, inarticulate,” ironically, to make me the face of the whole unionizing efforts.
And from that moment on, I began to advocate for worker’s rights and protest across the country, until about April 20th, 2021, when we founded the Amazon Labor Union, and we began our campaign, which I spent over three hundred days at the bus stop until we were successful on April 1st, 2022, when we voted to become the first union in American history for Amazon.
CAYA: Oh my gosh. That must have been an incredible feeling.
CAYA: So, there is a lot going on with the Amazon Labor Union right now. So how’s the organization’s progress going, and what are the next steps with that union? Do you have any plans to try to help other Amazon locations unionize?
CHRIS: Yeah, absolutely. We just filed for an election in Albany, New York, three days ago. So we have other buildings that will be going public soon, and there’ll be more to come after that. People and workers contact us every single day, every single week, asking for our support.
And we’re going with the campaigns that are most ready, and I can tell you now, we have plenty. Plenty of them that are going to be going public soon, and we’re excited to help launch these campaigns nationwide.
CAYA: And so the Action Network [which] you’re partnering with, I’m understanding that they’re helping you build on your organizing infrastructure. How is that partnership going, and how do you think that will help your efforts going forward?
CHRIS: Yeah, well, it’s a great tool to use. We had training today with my organizers, that’s in the building. They’re all receptive to it, very well, and they’re looking forward to using it ‘cause it’s gonna help them organize the data that we need to continue our campaigns and continue to help others get involved, ’cause things will be a lot easier. We have to fight power with power and, and creating tools on our side to help workers organize. That’s what it’s all about as well.
CAYA: So, wealthy corporations like Amazon, they profit off of desperation. They take advantage of poverty and desperation to exploit workers, and it seems like with Amazon, but also Starbucks and other smaller retail locations and foodservice locations across America, there seems to be more interest in union organizing, in a way that there hasn’t really been in the past. Do you think that there has been a bigger interest in people wanting to shift the bargaining power back to the workers? Is that something you’ve observed? And if so, why do you think that is?
CHRIS: Well, there’s definitely a shift in labor right now, but we still have a long ways to go. You know, the credit’s really gonna be given to the workers that are organizing. We’re forcing these companies to pretty much come to the table, and we’re forcing these companies to listen to us now, because we’re saying “enough is enough” as the working class.
We haven’t been given our fair share for quite some time.
We’re talking about decades, and now we’re in the twenty-first century, and corporations have been accumulating billions and trillions of dollars for too long. And the pandemic was eye-opening to the working class, that we’re essential.
We have to fight for more than what we’ve been getting.
And I think to get companies to come to the bargaining table, it only starts on the shop floor and with the workers. And what you’re seeing now is other industries of all kinds, even first-timers, are starting to realize that they deserve a lot more. And I think we’re in the time where this window of opportunity for labor is just as significant — or if not even bigger — than the Great Depression. So that’s where we at right now. Labor has the opportunity to really change the future of this country. And the Amazon Labor Union is a catalyst of that as well.
CAYA: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for these new generations of organizers?
CHRIS: Well, the biggest challenge is understanding the fight that we are in. Understanding that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
You’re gonna take some losses. You’re gonna take some wins, small victories. Some days where you’re gonna feel defeated. But you have to just stay resilient and stay the course, because, you know, corporations and billionaires, they thrive off of divisiveness, and we have to understand that the only way we’re gonna be able to defeat them is the power of the people coming together.
CAYA: What were some of the things, and they could be big or small, that kept you on your course, or kept you pushing through? Because I can imagine that there were probably some days where it seemed like something like a union was out of reach.
CHRIS: You know, I wouldn’t say I had any doubt with our campaign. The only thing that was challenging is figuring out, how do we get to our goal.
Who creates unions in 2022?
CAYA: Amazon does!
CHRIS: [Laughs] Amazon! It’s not an everyday thing. So just figuring out how the process works. And obviously, of course, the union-busting tactics of Amazon. We had to stay two steps ahead, and play chess with them as well.
The most challenging thing I could say throughout the campaign was the withdrawal the first time, not having the cards because Amazon fired a thousand workers within six months.
But even through that, I knew that if we kept our core intact, that we’d be just fine, and staying the course, and getting back to the basics, staying grounded. That’s all it took, because we showed the workers that we cared for one another, and we created a culture that Amazon just simply doesn’t have.
CAYA: And have you been getting any assistance from older unions or larger unions?
CHRIS: No, no. We, in the beginning, had nothing. It was just us out there, tabling chairs as workers. A lot of people doubted us, including established unions, and they didn’t think that we would succeed.
So we didn’t get nearly as much help as any other campaign.
And we’re fine, ’cause we did it our way and it worked out.
CAYA: Yeah, absolutely. So, going forward, how can anybody support the Amazon Labor Union efforts right now?
CHRIS: Yeah, they can definitely donate to our solidarity fund. Also our strike fund, at our website, www.amazonlaborunion.org. Also, get involved. If you’re on the ground in New York City, Labor Day, we’re gonna be in the streets at Jeff Bezos’ house. If you see any campaigns in your local area, get involved. Same thing goes for Starbucks workers as well.
CAYA: Thank you. So, we are just about at time. Before we wrap up, I just wanna ask you one question that I ask everybody at the end of interviews: The last couple of years have been really hard. This year has had its punishing moments. So during some of these unprecedented times or precedented times, just during these times, what is bringing you joy right now?
CHRIS: Oh, just seeing the inspiration. And the joy and energy from other people being inspired by our campaign. We know that we did something monumental, and we’re very proud of ourselves, and for us to succeed, it’s really bringing hope to everybody. So that’s what really keeps me going, is knowing that we’re doing it for the greater good and the bigger picture.
CAYA: Thank you very much for joining us today.
That was Chris Smalls here at Netroots Nation 2022! Join us next time for our next installment, and we’re gonna be hearing from some other fantastic interviewees. Until next time, for NPI, I’m Caya Berndt.