Chris Smalls onstage at Netroots Nation 2022
ALU President Chris Smalls greets attendees at Netroots Nation 2022 after walking onstage (Photo: Alexa Moormeier/NPI)

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. 

CHRIS: Absolutely.

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, 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.

For lis­ten­ers who want to donate to the Ama­zon Labor Union, you can vis­it their web­site at, or donate to the Ama­zon Labor Union Sol­i­dar­i­ty Action Fund.

About the author

Caya is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor based out of Spokane, Washington, writing about Lilac City politics, the Evergreen State's 5th Congressional District, and related politics. She previously hosted the inaugural episodes of NPI's PNWcurrents podcast. She works at the Unemployment Law Project and is a graduate of Central Washington University, with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and sciences. Caya also has a minor from CWU in law and justice.

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