The Workers Behind Amazon’s Historic First Union Explain How They Did It
At the end of March, workers at Amazon’s JFK8 facility made history: they voted in favor of a union. Much press coverage of their stunning win fails to capture the two-year road to victory, from Amazon’s public firing of organizer Chris Smalls in 2020 to the corporation’s vociferous anti-union campaign. But now that Amazon Labor Union (ALU) organizers have taken on a multibillion-dollar company and won, they’re eager to share their winning strategies with workers looking to unionize.
In a conversation with Jacobin contributor Eric Blanc (and guest Bernie Sanders, whose remarks can be read here), ALU organizers Michelle Valentin Nieves, Chris Smalls, and Angelika Maldonado offer their perspectives on the tactics that helped them build solidarity, created a thriving culture of organizing, and convinced their fellow coworkers to support the union. Throughout the discussion, hosted by Jacobin and the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, they stress that these tactics can be applied successfully to workplaces across the country, lending to the creation of a much bigger movement. The full discussion can be watched on Jacobin’s YouTube channel.
A lot of people are very inspired by what the ALU did, but they don’t know how to start. Most of us aren’t in unions. What is one thing you would tell someone who is considering organizing their workplace? What organizing task do you see as essential?
We had that issue at the beginning of our campaign. We had to educate a lot of the workers about what a union provides and represents, because they didn’t know. It was no fault of theirs, because since the 1930s, unions have been on a downfall due to the inflation of productivity and the way the laws are in this country.
Unionizing in this country has dropped to less than 10 percent. Educating your coworkers is step number one. I don’t suggest going online and going to a simple internet website. You’ve got to have a face-to-face conversation with somebody in the union to really understand what unions provide, and what the difference is when you’re unionized.
I tell the workers in Staten Island that, once they get on the bus, they should ask the bus driver. They are in a union, and I guarantee they love their job, they love their benefits. This applies to anybody in the country. Find somebody in a union and have a conversation with them. And not just one conversation — it takes several conversations. There are a lot of questions to be answered.
I guarantee that when you talk to a union rep or a union member, they can answer those questions for you. I promise you, at the end, you’ll probably make the decision that you want to join one.
Chris said everything. Let your coworkers know how important a union is. Try to find people in union families and have them explain exactly how certain people and jobs benefit from unions. And let them know that no matter where you work, you deserve to have certain rights that other workers in other companies do.
That’s very important, because in some places, people believe that they aren’t entitled to higher pay or certain benefits. That’s because of the conditioning in their workplace. So it’s very important that they find an outlet where they can learn and research information about how to get their own union started, and information to organize their own union.
There’s definitely strength in numbers, and in making sure that you build some kind of a friendship with your coworkers, especially if you are in an establishment long term. It’s important that everyone gets along, that everyone’s on the same page, and that you all have the same goals, as far as the organization goes.
Try to recruit as many people as you can. Try to talk to as many people as you can, all the time — if you’re on break, if you’re in the restroom, if you’re outside drinking coffee, if you’re at the bus stop, if you’re getting out of the car and you see someone. It can be any random place. Just try to bring more people in, because there is strength in numbers.
What were the specific techniques you used to bring people together at JFK8? Where did you talk to people? How important were the techniques you used? People can read online about your barbecues, TikTok videos, and conversations that you had inside the building. What is one thing that worked for you that you would suggest others do?
Food is the way to the heart. It’s as simple as that. If you want to bring people together, you feed them. It’s like any Thanksgiving meal. We made Thanksgiving several times through the year, and not just on Thanksgiving. We had potlucks, barbecues, bonfires. We rejoiced over food, and it wasn’t all rejoicing; it was more about conversations. It didn’t just have to deal with organizing. We made a space for workers to feel comfortable.
Once you get workers feeling comfortable, you have their attention. They look forward to seeing you every day. They were like, “Aw, man, where’s the bonfire at? Where’s the ALU at?” when we weren’t there. When you start to get that type of feedback, you know that you’re doing something correctly.
That’s why we fed our coworkers as much as possible, and we still continue to do so — because we know food is the way to the heart, and Amazon lacks that. They’re the Grinch who stole Christmas, and we’re the good guys.
Definitely the food. When I joined in October, the ALU team there had tons of barbecues. They were giving out pizza. The day I joined, I sat outside the tent and had a slice of pumpkin pie and some snacks.
Food is definitely the way to the heart. Also, being considerate of the different cultures at Amazon. We targeted different ethnicities and nationalities, and we took into consideration that we all came from different places. At one point, we were serving African fried rice. One of our team members got empanadas from a Spanish restaurant. Having these different ideas that targeted different cultures, whether we were part of that culture or not, definitely let the workers know that we were thinking of them in more ways than one.
When we had these potlucks, there was music, too. We made it enjoyable and fun while getting the information out about how the ALU wanted to benefit us as the employees of Amazon.
Organizing, for me, was fun. I enjoyed it very much. I tried to single out people that nobody else was really speaking to — someone really quiet, who you’d see not speaking to anyone. Single out that one person. There are people with disabilities; there are people in wheelchairs; there are people that can’t see very well. There are all types of people. I would try to talk to those people, too, because sometimes they’re ignored, especially by management.
Inside of Amazon, there’s a huge disconnect between management and the workers. That’s across the board, with every single worker. There’s a huge disconnect where you feel like you’re not even in the same building with your manager. There’s no conversation, no “Good morning, how are you?” There’s no sense of a work culture inside the building.
You have to create your own work culture. For me, it was easy and fun, because I’d been at that facility for three years. I already knew a bunch of people, and I was a familiar face. You’d see me coming in the building, or at the building, or you’d see me in the break room. You’d say, “Okay, this is a familiar face. I’ve seen this woman many times, and she’s with the ALU. She’s been here for a while.”
For the most part, people would feel comfortable speaking to me when I went up to them and tried to speak to them about the union, and tried to see if they were for or against it. I wouldn’t try to be too forceful, like, “You have to vote yes,” because that was what management was doing — they were telling everyone to vote no.
I didn’t want to come off with that same kind of energy. I wanted to be like, “Let’s discuss it. Whether you’re with it or not, let’s discuss that, and why. What can we do to try to persuade you?”
Where did you have those conversations?
It sounds like it might be scary having those conversations in the warehouse. Were people afraid of talking? How did you break through that fear factor?
People were definitely scared about talking, but again, we have our own work culture separate from management. Like I said, there’s a disconnection there. There’s a lot going on. I’m speaking about people who have been there long term, who have been with Amazon over a year, because Amazon creates an environment where they don’t expect you to last over a year.
If you make it over a year as a Level 1 associate, it’s like a miracle has happened. They really don’t expect you to last that long. They’re like, “I give this person a year, maybe a year and a half tops, and they’re out of here.” When you’re there for two or three years, and you’ve somehow found some way to flourish in that kind of environment, the managers don’t realize it, because they’re so disconnected.
We would speak everywhere — in the staircase, in the elevator, in the parking lot, in front of the building, on the bus, at St George Ferry Terminal, because I take the bus to St George and get on the Staten Island Railroad. There were people I saw at random places in Staten Island. I saw people at Costco, on Forest Avenue, outside of the facility. The conversations happened everywhere, at any time.
At Amazon, like most workplaces these days, there are a lot of divisions. People are fractured along a whole different range of lines. What were the divisions you saw, and how did you overcome them? Can you describe a specific conversation where you had to work on somebody for a while to get them to come over to the union, and what it took to move them?
Amazon tried to make this a racial thing in the beginning. They had one of their union busters, Brad Moss, come from Alabama. He was one of the first ones we exposed, because he talked to a group of workers — predominantly white, with one Hispanic woman — and made racial remarks about the ALU. He called us a bunch of thugs from outside the building. He called us a bunch of Black Lives Matter protesters with no experience. He tried to make it a racial thing, and he said he came from Alabama, and the union was no big deal.
Amazon ran with that. They don’t stop the rumors once they start, I can guarantee that. There’s nobody in there saying, “No, that’s not true.” Once the rumors start to spread, it’s like high school. They get to everybody through word of mouth, real fast. We know that they tried to paint us as people with no experience, who came off the streets, trying to steal everybody’s money with union dues.
It got to a point where they told everybody I was going to buy a Lamborghini. They even made a sign with an ALU decal on the side, with somebody driving this convertible, which I guess was supposed to be me. Michelle and Angelika can speak to this, but they had signs in there that were very racist. They had union-busting signs that had people wearing their hats backward, darker colored than the other cartoons that they used. It was very racist, what they were trying to do. And they’re still continuing to do it, because the union busting hasn’t stopped.
Basically, one of the ways that we tried to bring everyone together — although it wasn’t an easy task — was to create our own culture within the ALU. Everyone thinks that we have tactics worth thousands of dollars, but we were just being ourselves.
Connecting with the workers, we would sit outside, at times, by the bus stop and play loud music. We would connect with the young workers that way. I remember one time, I sat down and talked with an older woman inside the building — I call her Mom now — and brought her tea. We connected with the workers in any way we would treat our own family.
That’s the way we got through the age gap, even with different cultures, with organizers who spoke different languages. There weren’t hundreds of us — there were only about fifteen, toward the end. It was a very tedious organizing ordeal. However, what the ALU did and how we created our own culture worked for us.
It worked for us in a way where if you didn’t hear about the ALU, you’d still seen who we were, and when we approached you, you knew that we weren’t a third party. You knew that the captive audience meetings were just lies, and whatever we were telling you wasn’t untrue information. If anyone was to give out untrue information, it was Amazon. It was just building our own culture, and that’s how I see it.
It seems like a lot of core ALU organizers are pretty young. Is that true? Why is that the case, if so? And how were you able to connect with older workers?
The average age of an ALU member is twenty-seven years old. However, we have people who are fifty years old, maybe a little bit older, and people who are twenty years old. The reason for that is that a lot of people wanted to get involved with the ALU, but because the pay is not as good as Amazon makes it seem, a lot of older people have to provide for their families.
With that, there was only so much they could do. Sometimes they would come in the break room and help talk to their coworkers, but as far as coming in on their off days and dedicating the time we were dedicating, it was very difficult for them. I’ve spoken to many of my coworkers who said, “I really want to organize, but I have a second job. I don’t have anyone to babysit my child. I have to take care of my grandmother.”
Another thing is that if these people need to maintain their second jobs, we still have to fight so that one day, they won’t need a second job as much as they do now.
Michelle, can you add in on divisions, whether about the racism you were subjected to or about youth?
The captive union-busting classes were so racist that it was out of this world. The figures they had — let’s say a manager was a bright yellow or orange figure, then the ALU representative would be a dark purple or a dark blue. I saw that on the screen, and I was really shocked.
You have to understand that this completely backfired on Amazon. You’re showing us these racist images, but the majority of your workers there are . . .
Thirty percent Hispanic, thirty-five percent black.
When you show something racist like that to people of color — when people see me, I’m a very fair-skinned woman, but I do identify as a woman of color, first and foremost, and I do have people in my family, like my brother, my uncle, and cousins, who look like Chris and Angie. They don’t look like me, as far as complexion is concerned. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t identify as a person of color.
We’re fighting so our kids grow up in a society where they’re not subjected to the exploitation of a big corporation like Amazon.
They would look at me with a weird look on their faces. It’s like — you don’t get it. Do you not understand that this is racist? Do you not understand that this is morally wrong? There were so many things going on, to the point that I got thrown out of a few of the classes because the anger would come out. It was really disgusting, and I didn’t even know what to say about how racist it is.
As far as the environment in Amazon itself, it’s very, very diverse. It’s very divided as far as race. As far as the captive-audience classes went, they were really horrendous.
You were confronted with divisions, and each one of you had a lot of conversations. It sounds like you were talking to people all the time. Can each of you describe a conversation where you were able to move somebody who was a hard nut to crack?
Chris, Amazon tried to demonize you, as you just described. How did you break through with people who might have been skeptical or hesitant?
I definitely had to flip a couple of people. They’d just hear all these things about me through the grapevine, without speaking to me. After every conversation they had with me, they’d walk away saying that whatever they’d heard wasn’t true. I’m a nice, respectable guy. I respect you, I’m calm, unless we’re partying or having fun. That’s what I wanted to show people: that I’m a real human being, just like everybody else.
I’m an Amazon worker, just like yourself. I got hired as a picker. I was a process assistant, more on the management side for several years. But at the same time, I never forgot where I came from. That’s what people who worked underneath me, who organized with us, who have been around with me from day one — like Derrick Palmer — can speak on, how I was as a supervisor in the building. I’m the same way now. I respect everybody, no matter what position or level you are.
I think that helped debunk a lot of things that they heard about me, and about the union itself. Amazon tried to tie me, as a human being, to the union. They didn’t realize that every decision we make is a democratic decision. I’d never make a decision without consulting with the team and voting on it — as far as the budget, food, doing demonstrations, a rally. We have several meetings every week where we discuss these things and how we want to organize.
I like to have the workers come and challenge me and ask me tough questions. That made me stronger as a leader and as an organizer. I told people they’d go through a honeymoon phase. When you get hired by Amazon, you’re excited; it’s a big-name company. You see all these commercials out. The job looks great. The benefits you get on day one. It’s always better than its competitors.
But then — it could be two weeks in, two months in, two years — you realize that something needs to be done, because this is not what you expected. Whether it’s management getting on you, management not getting on you and not even having conversations with you, getting overlooked for promotions, being on station ten to twelve hours and not being able to cross-train, being cross-trained too much — where they use and abuse you and throw you anywhere, because it’s business needs — all of these things come to a wall, and you hit that wall when you’re like, “Enough is enough.”
Sometimes we’d have people walk past us for two, three months. Angie was probably one of them. It took her a while to finally say, “Let me have a conversation.” And it wasn’t just her. A lot of workers were like that. For two or three months, they wouldn’t take a flier. They wouldn’t take a pamphlet. They wouldn’t say hi. But then, that one day they realized management wasn’t on their side, they’d come right out and sign up. And that’s all I waited for as well.
Angie, you got involved in October of last year. How were you won over? What was a specific organizing conversation you had with somebody that you’re proud of?
I vividly remember leaving work early one day because I was exhausted. The ALU vice president had come up to me, and I had just missed the bus. Every time I miss the bus, I think about how when I first started in 2018, Amazon promised us shuttles. I had missed the bus, and Connor came up to me. He gave me the whole thing about the ALU, and what was going on at the time.
At the time, when I first signed up, the ALU was doing signatures. He said, “We’re about to turn in our signatures. You’re going to be one of the last batch of signatures. Help us make history.” I was like, “I just missed the bus! If Amazon had a shuttle, I would be promptly home by now. So yeah, I’ll sign it.” That’s basically how I got involved.
As far as flipping people, for certain days and certain people, the experience is different. There’ll be some people I’ll have a thirty-minute conversation with in the break room, and they’re like, “Everything sounds great. This is what I’m looking for in a union. I’ll think about it.” I say, “I’m here any time you need me. I’m always here.” They’re like, “Okay.” And then I’ll see them the next day, or a week later, and try to give them a newspaper or literature to update them — and they’ll say, “Girl, keep that paper. I’m voting yes!”
Sometimes, you don’t know because not everybody expresses their emotions in the same way. You’re thinking maybe a person isn’t as convinced as you would want them to be, or they still have concerns, but they’re just not as up front about it as I am.
One time, I was speaking to a guy about my age, twenty-eight, and he was talking about how he was in the military, and he believes a lot of the workers don’t work as hard as him, and that we shouldn’t get a raise, because that would mean everybody would get a raise. He felt he should only get a raise because he’d worked there for four years.
I explained to him how everybody’s role is different, and how we’re not only fighting for Tier 1 employees, but we’re also fighting for Tier 3 employees. He was like, “I’m not really voting for the union.” I said, “I’m right here whenever you want to speak to me.” Two weeks later, we were outside giving out lanyards, and he came up with one of the organizers named Casio and said, “Guess what? I’m voting yes!” I was like, “No way.” He said, “You softened me up a bit, but then I spoke to Casio, and I’m all in now!”
That’s the power in numbers. That’s the power of the different personalities in the ALU. That moment, a week before the election, really made me proud of myself. It made me proud of the organizers that we have.
Did you find that people required multiple conversations?
When I first got involved, I was actually in a heated argument with one of the managers. That’s pretty much the story of my life at Amazon. Over the years, I had to transfer numerous times, because once you get into it with one of the managers, especially if it’s the area manager, they find a way to either make your life hell or get rid of you.
I was in a heated argument with the manager, and Derrick, the vice president, came and spoke to me about it. He said, “What’s going on? I saw you arguing with this manager.” I had been screaming at the top of my lungs. I said, “The usual BS with management.” He gave me the card, and I signed immediately.
I didn’t even think about it. I did it instantly, and I was waiting for something like that to happen. Because there were times before everything happened that I was like, “When are they going to change inside this building? Show me a sign that this madness is going to come to an end.” That’s how I got involved.
As far as flipping other people, there were people it took me weeks upon weeks of constantly talking. I’m forty-five, so I’m a little bit older than some of the other ALU organizers. They were like, “Okay, she’s not twenty-five; she didn’t just get out of high school.” Not that the others look like they just got out of high school, but to a person who’s a little bit older, they don’t want to take advice from someone who’s twenty-five — especially if you’re thirty-five, forty-five, fifty-five. They’re going to say, “What do you know about life? You probably still live in your parents’ basement. What are you going to tell me that I don’t already know, if I’m twenty-five years older than you?”
Unfortunately, that can be the case, so I think me being in my forties worked in my favor. People thought, “She’s got to know something, because she’s not twenty-five.” Unfortunately, that’s the way people think. That’s how it worked for me. And I did get to flip a lot of people. It’s a wonderful feeling once they tell you that they’re going to vote yes. Once you find out, it’s the most amazing feeling in the world. I was like, “Wow. This is all really worth it.”
Angelika, you mentioned to me that you’re a mother, and that this went a long way in some of your conversations. Why do you think this was important?
It played a big part, especially because of what Michelle just said. A lot of people looked at me and thought, “Are you just doing this for fun?” I used that time to be vulnerable with the coworkers and let them know that I was the single mother of a four-year-old child.
I have a son. I work twelve-and-a-half-hour shifts for three consecutive days, and on my off days, I’m here every day. I would say that about 90 percent of the time, that’s when people would listen to me. It’s not like they were walking away before, but their ear wasn’t to the conversation.
I would tell them, “Listen, I’m a twenty-seven-year-old single mother. I’m not doing this for fun, hanging out in the break room for laughs and giggles. I’m here to make a better workplace for my coworkers, and I’m sacrificing time away from my child every day to bring a better work environment to my coworkers. And all I want you to do is take this piece of literature. If you have any questions, you know I’m here.” Once I asserted myself and was vulnerable in that way, most of the time, those people usually came back. The people who didn’t come back were the ones judging me.
Chris, you were there from day one; you famously helped start the union. You must have seen an amazing transformation at JFK8, from two years ago to the present. How did you see that general shift? Who was one person you flipped to support the union?
This is still surreal for me. I can’t believe that two years to the day I was fired, JFK8 made history on March 30, when the voting ended. To see over five thousand people vote in person, to go in and out of the tents, to sign off on the sealed ballots, to witness the ballot count live and in person at the NLRB office — I can’t put that into words. That experience is something that I will never forget for the rest of my life.
I said to my team: Win, lose, or draw, we already made history. I want to let everybody know that I never had a doubt in my mind that we would win. We were going to win. Even the last observers that I had in the tent — the last signature that I signed on the sealed ballot was “ALU for the win.” I wanted them to know that we knew and believed that we were going to win the election.
For the last eleven months, I’ve seen something that you haven’t seen in the movies. It’s not on social media. You can’t even put it into words. The craziest things you can think of happened to us out there. You all saw us get arrested once or twice. But the cops were called on us several times — maybe ten times since the beginning. The fire department was called on us a few times.
We got caught up in crazy storms. Staten Island has unpredictable weather; I don’t care what you all tell me, Staten Island has its own weather forecast, because I’ve been out there, and we lost nine tents. There were so many things we had to overcome every day. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait for the documentary to see that.
I didn’t just flip one person. I flipped a lot, probably hundreds if not several hundred. I wrote a letter a few days before the voting closed that was opened more than five thousand times. That was one of our most opened emails that we put out there. We put out emails every week, and they would average about fifteen hundred to two thousand clicks. The letter I put out was opened probably five or six thousand times.
Workers posted on the VOA board; they texted us; some of the organizers hit me up in my DMs on social media, saying that letter was the reason why they voted yes. That was its purpose: to tell my story, to let people know who I am as a person, how it happened from the beginning to the end, how we got to this point. And I think it also worked in our favor to give us a victory.
Angie, you told me the other day that you’d have a conversation with somebody, and if you didn’t have an answer for them, you’d give them Chris’s number. Is that right?
What did that look like, Chris? Did you get calls all the time? This is a novel organizing tactic.
I learned that method from someone else. But the crazy part is that we didn’t take it upon ourselves. Chris literally gave the OK. That’s why I say that what Amazon says about him is completely untrue — there are so many things that he’s given the OK for that I’m pretty sure other people wouldn’t have had time for.
I would get calls from workers. I still get calls from workers, and that’s fine. I want to be able to talk to them as much as possible. I know it’s important that they hear it from me, because they’re hearing from the company that I’m going to take the dues. They don’t want it to be a meal ticket from me, and I don’t want it to come across like that.
I want to explain that these dues are going into your own personal bank accounts — because you guys are the union. You’re paying union dues to yourselves. We have a treasurer who oversees that. There will be regulations on the budget and how money is spent, and you will have a seat at the table every step of the way, full transparency on everything. That helps put workers at ease.
Hearing these stories, it sounds like you did a lot of classic, basic workplace organizing tactics that a lot of unions do. Part of your secret sauce was how dedicated your organizers were. Most of you were working at the same time. How did you build that level of commitment among yourselves? There were fifteen of you, and you moved a massive warehouse of up to eight thousand workers.
Amazon helped. We have something that’s called “peak season.” If you’ve ever gone through an Amazon peak season, then you know what I mean. It’s twelve hours, five to six times a week, so you’re working almost sixty hours for a little over a month. If you go through that, you can go through anything. People in there have been through numerous peak seasons.
Once you go through your first peak season, that breaks the ice. That’s where Amazon underestimated us, and they underestimated our intelligence, our commitment, and our ability to thrive in a hostile work environment. Personally, my daughter is already nineteen, and she’s about to go to college. I had a lot of support from my husband. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know how I would have been able to commit myself the way that I did; he was very supportive when I came home. I had that support, so that’s how I was able to do it.
I definitely relate to that. As far as support from my own family, if it wasn’t for my mom and my little brother, who works at LDJ5 [Amazon sort center], it would have been impossible for me to organize and dedicate hours the way I did.
As far as dedication, I got my dedication from the organizers I work with today. When I first started volunteering at the tent, helping to get signatures, speaking to coworkers about the things I was learning, I also started learning the stories of the organizers. People like my partner in crime, Brett Daniels, who moved all the way from Arizona to support Chris and the ALU. People like Connor, who’s from the other side of New Jersey. Casio, who moved from LA and left his whole life behind.
I felt like I would have been doing a disservice by having anyone else pick up my slack, because I knew the support I had. So I dedicated myself every day and every which way, and I think that’s what really inspired me to commit.
I was the glue. They knew where to find me. You could call me every day, and I’d be at the bus stop. I knew I had to do that. I took time away from my kids, and I brought them out there. My kids came out and got signatures for us.
It gives me the motivation to continue, because I don’t want my children, Michelle’s daughter, and Angie’s son to go through what we’re going through. We’re fighting for them. We’re fighting so they grow up in a society where they’re not subjected to the exploitation of a big corporation like Amazon.
The time away from our children, our families, is well worth it. We’re changing history so that they don’t go through this. And I know what we’ve all sacrificed to do it. Once again, I’m just grateful to be a part of this movement and sharing this experience. The world’s watching us now, and my mom tells me this all the time: no weapons formed against us shall prosper.
We’re going to continue to fight. We’re going to win this next election. I’m speaking it into existence. We’re going to win the second one; we’re going to pop two champagne bottles instead of one. And you’re all going to witness this revolution. We’re going to take it nationwide. We’ve been contacted by pretty much every building in America right now, and then some, even overseas in other countries.
This is day one for the ALU, and I’m just happy that I’m here with my comrades. I couldn’t have done it without them.
To anyone who’s heard it, your story sounds inspiring, but maybe not like something they could do at their workplace. People are scared of their managers; they could say, “Maybe that can happen there, but it can’t happen here.” From you, it sounds like most workers at JFK8 felt that way before you started organizing.
What’s your message to the people out there who are hesitant to get involved in workplace organizing? What encouragement and advice can you give to them right now?
A real quick pep talk: just be fearless. Along with that, learn from each other and learn your rights. Even if you do have fear, once you learn your rights, once you learn the laws that protect organizers and labor in general, you’ll know what you deserve, what you can fight for, and how you’re protected.
I’m pretty sure a lot of the coworkers signing the cards, voting yes, did have those concerns. We always reassured them that we are protected by laws. Your vote is anonymous. Even as an organizer, learn your rights. That will eliminate a lot of the fear, and it will take you a long way.
There’s strength in numbers. As far as the workplace is concerned, building friendships is really important, as is speaking to each other and listening to see what the problems are, even outside of work.
Go into workshops; do things together, so that you can grow some type of a bond. That way, whenever you do decide that you want to organize and make changes, you know there’s strength in numbers, and there’s a group of people that you’ve already created a bond and a friendship with.
A friendship with your coworkers matters. It matters to have a positive work culture, because the majority of people are working full time. A lot of people are spending more time at work than they are at home. Building those friendships is really important, so that you have support from one another, and when the time comes that you feel you want to organize, at least you have that bond, and you have that friendship to fall back on.
Number one, if you quit your job, you jump from one fire into the next. Nothing gets changed. What you witnessed with the ALU was that we said, “Enough is enough. We’re not going to just quit our jobs. We’re not going to stand for Amazon’s anti-union propaganda. We’re not going to fall victim to failing our coworkers. We’re going to stay resilient. We’re going to stay grounded. We’re going to stay together.”
We had our days. We had our moments. We had our setbacks. I don’t consider them losses; I don’t think we took any losses. But we had our days when we would go out there and sign up nobody, maybe one person. Then we had our moments when we’d go out there and sign up two hundred people in one day.
That right there showed me and told me that what we had going was working. It doesn’t matter what day it happened on. It doesn’t matter how long. One of Amazon’s principles is “Every day is day one.” That’s how we approached organizing every single day. We knew that every single day, the next day would be completely different. Our consistency, our resilience, our dedication, our sacrifice — it all was worth it, because we were out there every single day, seeing people, talking to people, earning their trust, building relationships.
We were showing people, which is better than just talking about it. People walked past us every day for several weeks or months without talking to us. But at least they saw us. When other people said, “Chris, you weren’t out there. I had other workers arguing for me,” others would say, “No, he was here every day. I’ve seen him.”
Just showing up is the little thing that matters — doing things that your employers can’t do. You heard rumors about us giving out marijuana. You heard rumors about us giving out free books, free food. Employers won’t ever do that. That also played a big role — paying for somebody’s Uber ride to the hospital or to their house, because they were too tired to take the bus.
That’s why we had to use money from the GoFundMe as well. We were helping workers out, whether it was a cable bill, a phone bill, or COVID relief, because Amazon didn’t pay people’s full wages. They only paid 60 percent. How can people sustain their livelihoods while not getting a full check? So we tried to help out, making GoFundMes for people who needed housing, or people who had just gotten fired. The union did all of these things.
To become a union, all it takes is people coming together. Who makes unions in 2022? I know it’s different, but anybody in America, anybody in the world, can do it. You all just witnessed it. You can do it in your workplace, whatever industry you’re in.
If you need our support and our advice, we’re here. We’re accessible. I’ve had the same number for ten years. I encourage people to reach out. DM us — we’re going to get to everybody. We will have a national call where we will address everybody, especially Amazon workers who want to unionize.
Stay tuned, stay connected, and get into the revolution, because the time is now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christian Smalls is a former supervisor at JFK8, Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island, New York, and lead organizer of the Amazon Labor Union.
Angelika Maldonado is the chair of the Amazon Labor Union's Workers Committee.
Michelle Valentin Nieves is an organizer with the Amazon Labor Union.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Eric Blanc is the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics.
HAVE YOU READ JACOBIN IN PRINT? SUBSCRIBE AT A SPECIAL RATE AND DON’T MISS OUR LATEST EDITION.