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The people fighting for better lives using barbecues and TikTok23 min read

April 12, 2022 13 min read


The people fighting for better lives using barbecues and TikTok23 min read

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Stories Parenting Sticker by The Natural Confectionery Co.
Toilet Paper Reaction GIF by MOODMAN

The year was 2020, and the horrendous virus that we’d-rather-not-name had ravaged the entire planet. Everything had been shut down, and people were forced to remain home and not leave. But, the question remained: how long could people stay home before their supplies ran out. And, of course, as always, the answer to everyone’s problems was right there: Amazon. People pulled up their computers and started ordering; masks, sanitisers, and most of all, toilet paper.

In the city of New York, while people’s businesses shut down and employees lost their jobs, Amazon’s business was booming! And, moreover, the people who had just lost their jobs saw the light. Amazon was hiring!

Amazon dominates e-commerce during the pandemic—but Walmart is catching up  | Fortune
Image: Fortune Magazine

New Yorkers rushed to Staten Island, the home of JFK8, New York’s amazon warehouse. The warehouse was the Amazon’s only warehouse in the city and it was the size of 20 football fields! While the rest of New York went quiet, JFK8 buzzed louder than ever.

See Inside Amazon's First New York City Fulfillment Center
JFK8 on Staten Island. Image: Business Insider
Chris Smalls - Wikipedia
Chris Smalls. Image: Wikipedia

Among their 8,000 workers, Mr Chris Smalls laboured away. He was lifting and packing thousands of boxes a day just as he had been doing for years. In fact, despite it’s repetitiveness, Mr Smalls was quite happy with the work that he was doing. During the time that he worked at Amazon, he was a glowing employee. He met all the company’s goals and requirements and hoped to become a manager someday.

Prime Day GIF by Amazon


But Covid-19 had him worried. He had seen what the terrible disease could do and was feeling rather uncomfortable about the fact that he was working in a warehouse while the rest of the country stayed at home. Nonetheless, people needed supplies, and Mr Smalls and his coworkers were crucial to the country’s plan to send the virus back to the extra-terrestrial hell from which it came.

However, at some point, Mr Smalls got suspicious. He was worried that his managers at JFK8 were not telling Amazon’s workers when other workers and people within their protected bubbles were falling ill. He suspected that were doing this to make sure that work continued around the clock.

A walkout in March 2020 over employees’ concerns about Covid-19 began the organizing movement at JFK8.
Covid-19 Protests. Image: The New York Times

When Mr Smalls finally confronted his manager about the fact that someone in the warehouse had Covid-19, the manager apologised and claimed that he had forgotten to mention it. But this wasn’t just any old flu with which one could play fast and loose, it was Covid-19! And that too, before the rollout of the vaccine.

Infuriated, Mr Smalls gathered some other workers in the warehouse and walked out. They could no longer tolerate being treated as human beings whose health and safety didn’t matter. 

Amazon and Walmart have raked in billions in additional profits during the  pandemic, and shared almost none of it with their workers

In January 2022, one in ten Amazon workers was down with Covid-19. 

The Walkout

Thanks to this walkout, the news started investigating Amazon’s treatment of its employees. And as people opted to leave and protect themselves, Amazon’s work slowed down. Eventually, the US government took note. As you’d imagine, Amazon didn’t like this very much, and they claimed that the walkout was unjustified since Mr Smalls had never personally been in contact with an infected person. The company said that it had already told everyone who worked around the sick person to quarantine. 

Criticism of Amazon - Wikipedia

Goodbye, Mr Smalls

However, a few weeks later, something strange happened. Mr Smalls was removed from Amazon under the claim that on the day that he organised the protest, he was meant to quarantine. To Mr Small, just didn’t add up. But Amazon was a company with millions of workers and billions of dollars, while Mr Small made just enough money to get by every day. So, soon enough, he was on his way home, unemployed during the world’s most difficult time. 

Industrial action - Wikipedia

Mr Small was both afraid and infuriated but he knew that he wasn’t the only one who was disappointed with their status at the company. So, once he returned home, Mr Small contacted his best friend, Derrick Palmer, who still worked at Amazon, and the two decided to fight back. How, you ask? 

The answer lies in one simple word: Unionising.

What is a labour union? 

A union or labour union refers to the banding together of employees to ensure that their employer treats them fairly and provides them with improvements at the workplace. Through unions, people join together to make sure that they are safe and not exploited at a place where they spend a large portion of their waking hours: work.

Labor Unions of the World, Unite

It is the fundamental right of every worker across most free nations to join together in unions and make demands and deals with their employers. This process of making these deals with the company that has hired you on behalf of all the workers that it has hired is known as collective bargaining. 

Collective Bargaining: Definition and Labor Relations Legislation - Video &  Lesson Transcript | Study.com

In America, the right to forming unions and collective bargaining is protected by The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which was created in 1935.

Mr Small’s Union

That’s right, even though Mr Small didn’t work at Amazon anymore, he knew that he wasn’t the only worried worker in his old warehouse. Small and Palmer got to work. Together, they studied up on America’s laws about unions and realised that if they could put one together, Amazon would no longer be able to simply fire employees willy nilly. In fact, a union could help JFK8 with a lot of their problems, some of which were:

A union could help the JFK8 employees ensure that all Covid-19 cases are being reported on time.

That’s not all. Workers in factories often get injured and even lose their lives to workplace injuries. Just last November, six amazon workers lost their lives to tornado, after the warehouse didn’t meet all the safety standards required and “carelessly required individuals … to continue working up until the moments before the tornado struck.”

Surveying the damage after a tornado struck an Amazon site in Edwardsville, Ill., in December.
Two workers lost their lives after a tornado struck an Amazon Warehouse. Image: The New York Times

They could try to negotiate for better salaries.

Amazon’s workers work notoriously long hours and often have to keep standing and lifting heavy boxes during those long hours. A union could help reduce these inhumane work timings.

Amazon workers are constantly monitored. Every time they slow down a little or take a minute to themselves, an app notifies the management in the warehouse. This leaves people with almost no freedom to take breaks. Amazon can fire them for something as simple as taking too long in the bathroom. While the government agency that manages labour unions has helped workers fight off some of these monitoring techniques, other techniques continue to remain in place.

The bottle controversy

Documents Show Amazon Is Aware Drivers Pee in Bottles

In 2020, a video of Amazon workers having to relieve themselves in water bottles went viral. Rumours spread that Amazon was forcing workers to give up on their bathroom breaks and use all their time to work and ship packages. However, this evil supervillain story wasn’t true. Amazon wasn’t, in fact, forcing its workers to take wees in bottles. But the truth was that this was a response to Amazon’s “Time Off Task” monitoring system.

Amazon’s “Time off Task” monitoring system makes sure that employees waste no time chatting, sitting around, or essentially not working. So even when workers go to the bathroom, their time away from the factory floor is considered “Time off Task”. If a worker spends enough time away from their task, they can be fired, and more often than not, they are.


“”We have looked at how we can get packages to customers in a day. But we haven’t figured out how we can get packages to the customer in a day without hurting people””

— A former manager at Amazon

While there are several more issues, such as a company bus to prevent workers from spending most of their money on travel that a union could negotiate, forming a union is no easy task.

People wait for a ferry to take them to the Amazon Warehouse for work. Image: The New York Times

Votes, votes and more votes

A union can only be formed after an election in which the majority of workers vote for one. But even to hold an election, Mr Small needed to prove that he had enough support.

You’re probably wondering, but shouldn’t it be easy considering all of the benefits and rights that unions seem to provide? Well, it isn’t that simple.

Amazon, No Problem

Amazon underscores commitment to employees, supply chain partners, and  communities

First of all, some people are happy at Amazon. They don’t mind the long days or the fact that they are being constantly watched. In fact, they love that Amazon pays them better than most other warehouses in the country and also gives helps them with their medical bills, and the cost of their children’s education among other things. These people worry that a union could bring an end to all of that. Or perhaps, if they vote for a union, Amazon will simply bring on new workers who don’t support the union and get back to business as usual– just without them. 

Moreover, they don’t want to pay the fees that unions require all workers to pay once they are created.

Unions take fees in order to be able to help workers in need, pay lawyers and representatives and set up insurance for the members of the union.

Hired then Fired

Even though Amazon does offer great benefits and better salaries, compared to the profits billions of dollars of profits that these workers help Amazon make, they hardly get a tiny sliver of the pie.

Image: The New York Times
Image: The New York Times

Do workers really have a right to Amazon or Jeff Bezos’ profits? It is his company after all.

While higher level employees get juicy salaries at Amazon, climbing up the ladder is quite hard. So if a warehouse worker wants to become a manager some day, the numbers show that it is very very unlikely. In fact, Amazon tries to make sure that lower-level workers stay for only short periods of time, as their CEO believes that people get lazy after a while. However, for workers who rely on their jobs in order to survive, this risk of quickly losing their jobs is both stressful and scary. 

At the same time, this is how business works and would be delusional to believe that the world is fair or that those with less should have the right to take anything from those with more. One could argue that the warehouse workers are made aware of their salaries when they choose to join the company, and therefore have no reason to complain.

Signage reminding workers about the election at a bus stop across the street from the warehouse on Staten Island.
A union could make sure that Amazon has to give valid and just reasons for firing workers. Image: The New York Times

Union Busting

Secondly, Amazon and several companies like it do everything in their power to make sure that workers don’t join unions. They perform something known as Union Busting. Union-Busting is a process through which companies scare their workers away from unions. Companies spend a whole lot of money and time to convince their workers that unions will eventually be bad for them and could even cause them to lose their jobs. 

Amazon spent 4 million dollars last year alone on union-busting.

Mr Small is the face of the union

But despite the difficulties ahead, Mr Small got to work. He and Derrick Palmer set up small campsites near Staten Island’s ferry station where most employees would come every evening on their way home. Tired and stressed out, they would sit with Small, talk about their problems, eat some barbecue, and use TikTok to raise awareness. 

Soon posters started propping up all around the warehouse, and both workers and Amazon’s management took note. In fact, even Jeff Bezos had been notified about it. 

Posters on the windows of the JFK8 warehouse. Image: The New York Times

Then something truly terrible happened, a leaked email showed that Amazon’s top management was planning to make Small the face of the union’s campaign. They thought that since he was not “well-educated, smart or well spoken”, his campaign would seem more like the lazy complaints of a bad worker.

David A. Zapolsky | UW School of Law

“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent that the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.”

— David Zapolsky, Amazon’s General Counsel

This, in fact, was Amazon’s big blunder. Unions are becoming less and less common. He was starting one, that was actually run by the workers themselves. Unlike other unions that are run by professionals who the workers don’t necessarily trust, this union would be run by their barbecue buddy and co-worker.

Mr. Smalls, right, held a barbecue  outside the warehouse to encourage workers to sign union cards.
Chris Smalls hosts a union meeting at a community barbecue. Image: The New York Times
Staten Island Labor Organizers Taking on Amazon File Charges – Commercial  Observer

Unions on the decline

Unions often fail. Today, only 10.3% of America’s workers belong to unions. This is thanks to recent laws that make unionising much harder. Not to mention the millions of dollars spent on expensive union-busting. Nonetheless, unions are popular. 68% of Americans think unions are a good idea, and the country’s current government also supports unions and the workers’ rights to choose how their life should be. 

President Biden speaking on Wednesday at the national conference of North America’s Building Trades Unions.
President Biden speaks at a conference on Trade Unions. Image: The New York Times

Why do you think companies spend so much money on union-busting?

The vote

Historic vote: Victory to the Amazon Labor Union! – Workers World
Image: Worker’s World

It took Chris and his friends over three tries just to get enough supporters to conduct a vote at all. Finally, in December, he got 30% of Amazon’s workers to agree to holding an election to decide whether or not there should be a union. He then took his votes to the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB). These are the people who hold the elections for workers and make sure that everything is free and fair. 

At least 30% of the workers at Amazon must want a union for a union election to take place.

Amazon Labor Union (@amazonlabor) / Twitter
The ALU logo.
NLRB Is Refusing to Bargain in Good Faith with Its Own Union? | Labor &  Employment Report

For months, Smalls along with the NLRB raised money and spent it on making sure he could educate as many Amazon workers about their rights as possible. Meanwhile, Amazon made sure they told as many workers as possible about how unions could damage their chances of big promotions and ruin the relationships between Amazon’s workers and their employees. 

Smalls called the union Amazon Labour Union or ALU.

On the 31st of March, the vote began. Mr Smalls held out hope and everyone at JFK8 watched with careful attention– this could change their lives forever.

Each JFK8 worker was asked: Do you wish to be represented for purposes of collective bargaining by the Amazon labour union?
The first ever Amazon labor union is in Staten Island, New York - Vox

Then, on the 1st of April, it happened. For the first time in the ginormous company’s history, a union had been formed. ALU won!!

Amazon warehouses and factories have tried to unionise before but they have all failed.


Members of the new union celebrated in Brooklyn on Friday night.
Victory! Image: The New York Times

The count was broadcast live to the public. The final tally was 2,654 in favour to 2,131 against.

The union has already demanded “8 immediate changes from Amazon,” including paid time off for injured workers, pay raises, an end to arbitrary discipline, and a shuttle bus to and from the Staten Island Ferry!

The World Reacts

Amazon union leader slams AOC: 'She doesn't deserve this moment' | The  Independent

“Amazon wanted to make me the face of the whole unionizing efforts against them, welp there you go!”

— Chris Smalls

Amazon Planning 2020 Cloud Gaming Launch; Nazara to Invest USD$20m (£15.5m)  in Startups - TheGamingEconomy.com

” We are disappointed with the outcome of the election because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees.”

— Anna Wong, Volunteer

Joe Biden Hits His Stride at Democratic National Convention

“I am glad to see that worker’s voices were heard”

Joe Biden, President of the United States

Jen Psaki Reportedly Planning MSNBC Peacock Show

“[President Biden] believes firmly that every worker in every state must have a free and fair choice to join a union and the right to bargain collectively with their employer. The Amazon workers in Staten Island made their choice to organise a grassroots union and bargain for better jobs and a better life.”

— Jen Psaki , President Joe Biden’s spokesperson

Approve So Good Sticker by Demic

Do you want to know more about unions and what it’s like to work in a factory in America? If yes, this documentary is for you. In fact, Mr Small’s struggle is not too different from what you’ll see in this wonderful film. And the best part is that you get a glimpse of the managers’ and factory owner’s side of the story too!

You can watch this film on: Netflix

With Excerpts From: recode, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Times, NPR, The New Yorker, Axios, Hoover Institution, The Harvard Gazette, Economic Policy Institute, and The Intercept