Amazon Labor Union & Chris Smalls: Sadly, Many Red Flags
Organizing is really hard and requires a gargantuan effort to meet people where they are, which needs a ton of hands and structure for the country's 2nd largest employer. Where are the bodies for ALU?
Let’s talk about Chris Smalls, the Amazon Labor Union President. We LIKE Chris. We deeply admire his tenacity, his care for the health and safety for the workers of JFK8 (the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island he was fired from), and for the relentlessness he’s sustained for more than two years as he became a national figure, which he clearly never sought out. He just wanted to work somewhere that didn’t put his life at risk and took a stand. Over the past two plus years, he’s become a lightning rod, he’s been positioned by many as representative of the entire labor movement, and, frankly, may be in over his head at this point.
Let us start by saying that we never wanted to write this piece. It was our utmost hope that what is happening would not play out this way; however, we both warned against it early and have continuously pointed out the warning signs as a collective network since early April 2022, when workers at the JFK8 Amazon Facility voted to become the first Amazon warehouse in the country to unionize behind the newly formed Amazon Labor Union.
The left (and organized labor) has never done well relying on individuals to carry a movement. They are too easy to tear down and too susceptible to co-option.
The Big Win & The Open Letter
The DAY AFTER the historic JFK8 vote, where ALU members elected to form a union to negotiate with Amazon, INN members Reef Breland and Collin Radix-Carter did a segment on the April 10 edition of INN News called, “An Open Letter to Chris Smalls.” They warned about all the attempts that the establishment and the media would make to neuter and de-fang this win, to pat him on the head, co-opt it and direct it toward infighting. The goal of the powerful, with big stake to lose by workers organizing, is eventually to channel that energy right back into the Democratic Party. That’s where organized labor has traditionally put their political support - even if it’s not necessarily representative of the workers’ political ideologies.
The biggest red flag is the VENEER of activity, but the lack of visible substance for the ALU since the win. Very aligned with the Democratic Party in that vein.
We also put out an open invite at that point for Chris (or ANYONE from the ALU) to come on as often as possible to talk about what’s happening and how we could help support the organizing workers. Other independent networks and channels did as well.
PRO Act / Alignment with Teamsters & Established Unions AFL/CIO
Are you aware that the PRO ACT (Protecting the Right to Organize Act) would effectively ELIMINATE the ALU? It would consolidate all the Amazon unions under the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations). Our friend Shadowbanned Refugee (Paulie) appeared on the YouTube channel Franc Analysis to give his breakdown of the proposed, but failed, PRO Act that Chris openly lobbied Congress to pass.
“Now why someone who started the Amazon Labor Union would be jumping on board with this particular…bill boggles the mind, because it is specifically written into this bill that it has to be a CERTIFIED UNION; that is ‘code’ for ‘it must be affiliated with the AFL-CIO,’” - meaning - the Amazon Labor Union will be STRICKEN - it will no longer exist.
The organization to replace it will most likely be the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which is AFL-CIO.
“[The intent of the PRO Act] is to centralize labor power into the hands of the bought-and-paid for AFL-CIO, and put the state in control of your contract negotiations. I'm a union guy, [IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers)] so I have some skin in the game here.” - Shadowbanned Refugee
A partisan union that has traditionally been aligned with Democrats, further politicizing the union and potentially alienating Republican and nonpartisan workers.
The Teamsters are taking on Amazon was published in June 2021 by The American Prospect
Lo and behold, TEAMSTERS LAUNCH NEW AMAZON DIVISION was a press release issued by IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) on September 6th, 2022.
The Speech in Front of Congress
On May 5, Chris gave a speech to Congress that was excellently written and well delivered. However, how can Chris claim “it’s not a left or right thing, but a worker thing,” while simultaneously turning the labor issue into a partisan one - when it MUST be non-partisan to be successful? He’s heavily aligning with Democrats (and Democratic-friendly media) over Republicans (independents and non-voters never even factor into the discussion).
The White House Visit & A Missed Opportunity
Let’s all remember that Chris went to the White House on May 6 not expecting to meet Joe Biden, but to meet with Vice-President Kamala Harris & Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. What was he hoping to gain by accepting that meeting? Already, corporate media was falling over themselves to credit them for something that had no stated goal or measurable outcome beyond a meeting with labor leaders - per the embedded tweet below from Jeff Stein at the Washington Post. Before the meeting even happens, it’s described as “pro-union” and “historic” - more platitudes and celebrating delivering nothing tangible for workers.
The ALU got played by the Biden/Harris administration to make it appear as if they’re doing something to HELP labor. Chris could have used that opportunity to call Biden out to his face in front of all the cameras - or to NOT GO at all, inviting them all to instead come visit him at an Amazon facility and talk to him - AND the workers. He played and went along with the part. He doesn’t need Joe Biden’s approval to organize the warehouse workers - actually, quite the opposite. He didn’t need to give them the “home-field advantage” of the White House, which is massive and intended to be intimidating/overwhelming to visitors.
By going to the White House, Chris further played into Biden’s hand, allowing the Democrats to politicize the story - and what did it gain for ALU and the workers, exactly? More union support from Democrats in office? Likely not. Fundraising from workers because you talked to the President? Doubtful. They just handed Biden a talking point.
Platitude salad, Jack. All that matters is what goes on the nightly 6 and 11 o’clock news to the Democrats - which was the 3-second sound bite of Chris laughing at “got me in trouble” and the handshake. The narrative gets set by corporate media once they have their B-roll.
The White House used Chris for a photo op to make it appear that they’re trying to help unions - and that it’s getting them “in trouble” for supporting them (with their real bosses - the corporations and donors). They tell on themselves all the time.
Amazon’s Union Busting Efforts Ramped Up at LDJ5 & Elsewhere
We need to start with a basic education of the union busting that Amazon has routinely employed against its workers who try to organize, even AFTER they win a vote. This video, published in December 2021 by INN member Kris Legion titled “‘KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT!’ when trying to start a Union. The REPERCUSSIONS of Organizing Unions” is a good primer for discussion.
On April 13, Indie Left and Reef did a segment on How Did We Miss That? talking about some of the union busting tactics Amazon was going to employ, based on the Bessemer loss last year and the hiring of literal Pinkertons. The clip references three articles from that week, published in Socialist Alternative, Truthout and Forbes.
On May 10, another How Did We Miss That? segment focused on the efforts by Amazon to crush the ALU efforts to organize at the LDJ5 facility (the smaller Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, NY across the street from JFK8, among whom workers held a vote to join ALU - which ultimately the workers voted down unionizing in May 2022), up to and including firing the organizing workers. This clip below reviews a Socialist Alternative write up, “Right-Wing Tropes, Gaslighting, and High-Paid Spies: Amazon’s Union Busting at LDJ”:
Two weeks later, How Did We Miss That? covered a speech written by a fired Amazon employee (Tristan Lion, who was organizing at LDJ5) and was published in Left Voice:
Chris Enjoying His Celebrity / “Union Drip”
INN members further pointed out some of the red flags starting to appear during this 45-minute segment recorded at the end of May on INN News (“Is Chris Smalls a ‘Gucci Socialist?’”):
The Time Magazine Top 100 Influential People w/ Zendaya & Dwayne Wade
Developing celebrity is nice, but workers should not be hobnobbing around with the Hollywood elite - remember appearances. Think about how the average person perceives all of this, presented largely by the lens and the framing of the mega-corporate controlled media.
After his appearances at various awards shows, Collin & Reef did this 30-minute story on June 30th on INN News “ALU in Trouble? Is Chris Smalls Co-Opted Now?”:
Rarely Taking Off The Sunglasses
“Even indoors, the sunglasses became a part of his look - it feels like just this wall of insincerity - when you are trying to talk to working class people and reach through to us, it’s hard for me to trust someone if I can’t see their eyes…I think it speaks a lot to someone being made a face of a movement because…once you turn everyone’s focus to that person, and their own life, and their own issues - then if you have them fail…then so does the movement.” - August 23rd edition of the show American Tradition with Jesse Jett
Chris is now rarely seen without wearing his sunglasses. We wonder - is it a bad look that the face of labor in the USA won’t let you see his eyes - the “windows to the soul?”
Jesse (INN’s musical director) recently wrote and performed a spoken word piece, “Union Drip” as a cautionary tale, pointing out what he’s seen from his perspective of a laborer who drives a forklift and works in a warehouse (albeit, not an Amazon one). (“Union Drip” segment starts at 38:16):
Where’s the PR Arm? Where is The Infrastructure?
Where’s the marketing machine? Why can’t news shows (like INN News or How Did We Miss That?) be able to easily book ALU leaders and representatives (more on that below)? It cannot fall on Chris, or Derrick, to understand the complexities of the media landscape and book their own media appearances - they also cannot not rely on consultants with Democratic party and corporate media links.
When How Did We Miss That? covered the story about the successful Brookline, MA teachers’ strike, one of the highlights from the organizers was the large number of people involved and the constant 1-to-1 communication that was happening among the workers. Each leader was responsible for just five workers - no more than that. Something manageable, not overwhelming - to build rapport, credibility and trust with.
Since Chris has now become the figurehead of the ALU/labor movement, who are the people behind the scenes? Are they connected with Teamsters? AFL-CIO? DSA? Are they building an in-house team?
They need in-house public relations, graphic designers, web design, video editors, programmers and coders. They need independent media experts from within the warehouses who view media from a workers’ benefit perspective first and foremost.
Expanding the reach of the union to include booking appearances on shows unpopular with the Democratic elites may appeal to a large percentage of the warehouse employees. Going on FOX is still acceptable today because it’s speaking directly through the controlled corporate media pushing duopoly narratives & maintaining the status quo. It appears, from the outside, that there are not enough people and/or enough money to make this happen - yet. It takes MANY hands to do this work.
Better yet, why should the ALU do ANY corporate media appearances which are not 100% on their terms? Shouldn’t the ALU look to build its own channels, develop their own talent - on a self-hosted platform, which speaks directly to the co-workers without any corporate spin or interference? Conditions in the warehouses and for the drivers are atrocious - why not daily press conferences?
Horrific Conditions Continue to Kill Workers
A worker died in a facility on Prime Day 2022 in Carteret, NJ in July - no statement from the ALU. To Chris’ credit, he did tweet out about the incident, but eight days after it occurred.
After three deaths in NJ, OSHA started to look into what’s happening, but that investigation is still ongoing.
The conditions at JFK8 prior to pandemic were well-documented:
This clip from How Did We Miss That? in early August spotlights how badly Amazon is treating its workers - dating back to pre-pandemic - and it’s only gotten worse since then (starts at 15:54):
It’s been well-documented for years that bathroom time for employees is, and has been, an issue.
Warning Signs of Democrats Trying to Co-Opt The Unionization Effort
We’ve screamed about how bringing workers together to form a union needed to be a non-partisan effort, and how inclusion of liberal politicians would, in the end, only divide the workforce. Allowing AOC and Bernie Sanders to grandstand at the Staten Island rally in advance of the LDJ5 vote, just weeks after the JFK8 successful vote was a big tactical mistake. Why?
Anyone who is not a fan of AOC or Bernie could now see the leadership and union as politically biased and, as a result, be opposed to allowing the Democratic Party - aligned union leadership to set the agenda and control the spending. It turned the whole thing political. To his credit, Chris did point out that AOC at least did show up this time, after not showing up beforehand.
The vote at LDJ5 was, unfortunately, unsuccessful - whether the involvement of politicians in the effort had any effect is hard to determine.
And it’s continuing, right through #HotLaborSummer - with another livestream with Bernie, and an appearance in Cleveland with Nina Turner.
Indie and Reef have been calling this out routinely, as they did here during this How Did We Miss That? clip from May:
#HotLaborSummer - Further Dem Party Alignment
The Netroots Nation Conference, where Chris attended as a panelist and speaker in July in Pittsburgh, PA, is a conference whose aim is to “create a more progressive and just world.” “Progressive” politicians (Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib were past attendees), activists, organizers and independent media makers are welcome to attend the conference. Ilhan Omar was also featured as a panelist and speaker at the conference this year.
The American Federation of Teachers featured Chris at their annual conference in Boston, MA where he spoke in the tweet below. The AFT is known for aligning with Democrats.
100 Facilities? Where? Let’s Talk to Them!
We support ALL the Amazon workers, and other workers around the country organizing to file unionization paperwork with the NLRB. They lost a vote at the facility across the street just weeks later, where Chris claimed that “more than 100 facilities” have reached out about unionizing - which ones?
What can the general public do to help them organize? To amplify their stories? To showcase the struggles and needs of the workers? Indie sent this email to the ALU on May 11 that went unresponded.
URGENT APPEAL FOR UNITY AND MASS ACTION AGAINST UNION BUSTING By Amazon Workers, Popular Resistance - August 11, 2022
Almost eight weeks later, when Chris went to California, he responded to Collin on Twitter in response to his photo-op with the “Euphoria” actress Zendaya, as well as our network efforts to reach out to him (or anyone in the ALU) to talk about their organization efforts:
So we started coordinating with Zara (Chris’ assistant) to schedule something.
We then spent the next four weeks trying to identify a date, time, offering flexibility, however; there seems to be little to no interest from the ALU in making the time to speak with the members of our (admittedly, tiny) media outlet showcasing their stories or educating the public on how they can help.
Derrick is cc’ed on every email - Zara says she’d talk to him about this, but as the VP of the union, he didn’t even acknowledge this two week chain of emails. Why not?
On August 13, Indie got frustrated and called out Chris in a quote tweet, after Chris replied to INN member Blue Moon Red Wine on Twitter (while publicly ignoring Indie and other INN members). This tweet also went unresponded to - by Chris and everyone else.
What Happened in Kentucky? Where Was The ALU?
After that tweet above, Indie did get a reply, but not from Chris Smalls or Derrick Palmer. Matt Littrell, Chairman of the Campbellsville, Kentucky chapter of the ALU, replied to Indie, and was willing to talk!
Indie and Matt began messaging back and forth - it was a very positive conversation. Matt appears to be genuine, his stories fit and made sense, and he is clearly a hard worker who is appreciative of and sought more media exposure for his warehouse, especially from a worker’s perspective, to showcase the conditions, strict rules, and time requirements the warehouse employees are required to follow.
Two days later, Indie and Collin recorded an interview with Matt (which never aired due to audio issues). We had been DM’ing on Twitter for a less than a week, when that same Friday, Matt was terminated, per the tweet below:
Strangest of all? Why has Amazon Labor, and by extension, Chris Smalls, NEVER RT’d this, or made any public mention of this retaliation against one of his local Chairpeople?
During that week, Matt advised of several methods Amazon uses to implement a two-tier employee system (blue badges and white badges), expressed disappointment with the lack of speed and urgency on the part of the ALU to even send a “welcome packet” (whatever that is). He sang the praises for Heather Goodall, who has gone through her own trials and opposition from Amazon while organizing the workers at the Amazon ALB1 warehouse near Albany, NY, which filed for NLRB recognition that week under the ALU.
Collin has talked extensively about his experiences with people who have “hood dreams” - either wanting to be a pro athlete (Chris aspired to play for the NBA before he got injured via a hit-and-run), or a rapper (Chris was a rapper earlier in his adulthood but gave it up to support his twin children).
For Chris, he now has the opportunity to rekindle his dream of rapping directly through his organizing, but those aspirations can cloud his judgement and make him vulnerable to coercion, and eventually co-option, by “seeing stars in his eyes” (in Chris’ case, literally - he has been photographed with Zendaya and Dwayne Wade, among others).
The danger of having stardom thrust upon him is the time element. Connecting with Hollywood celebrities and sports stars, wearing custom made “Union Drip”, a production of a memoir, a steady flow of media appearances - all can distract from the ultimate goal: unionizing Amazon, talking with the employees to address their concerns and get them aligned to fight the corporate machine together with a shared purpose.
“Fuck Jeff Bezos” - The Best Message for a Union Leader?
The hostility and aggressiveness, specifically directed at Jeff Bezos, from whom he and union leaders are going to HAVE to sit across a negotiating table from at some point, is not necessarily in the best interests of the workers. Bezos isn’t even involved in the day-to-day management of the operations at this point, and likely would not be involved in any union negotiations.
They don’t need to be friendly, but they don’t need to run around screaming “Fuck Jeff Bezos - billionaires they gotta go.” It is going to be seen or perceived to the rest of the outside world as unserious and “thuggish” - it plays into racist stereotypes. It’s also the person who founded the company they all work for, who does provide the workers with a job.
The other issue is that it does nothing to address the systemic issues. There will always be another Jeff Bezos.
General Strike… 2024?
Chris has mentioned in several interviews that he is calling for a general strike in 2024. What is the plan to build a strike/mutual aid fund, so that worker threats to walk out actually have teeth? What are his (or the ALU’s) plan to educate people on the need for strike/mutual aid funding and execute this idea so people can be prepared and plan accordingly?
Also, why wait for a general strike two years from now (it is interesting that Chris wants to push for a general strike during the 2024 presidential campaign season.)? Yes, setting up mutual aid/strike funds take time, but there are plenty of Amazon workers who have been fired (like Matt) who are now setting up GoFundMe’s or requesting financial assistance online to sustain their living costs. Where is the urgency of meeting the needs of Amazon workers right now? And why has Chris not highlighted this issue as part of his organizing?
The Ask Was Never Big Enough - Where Are The Demands?
At INN (and other independent media networks) we constantly question if “the ask” regarding policy that forces systematic, radical change for the working class is big enough. Time and time again the Democratic Party are notorious for starting at the compromised position of policy, in the guise of appealing to their Republican and centrist Democratic colleagues in the name of “bipartisanship.” This stance always ends up becoming a “crumb” that the working class has to unwillingly accept as the best the Democratic Party can do. We have been told by “progressive” leaders like AOC and others that the working class need to “organize” in order to push politicians to do the right thing for their constituents, but we never hear or learn what “organizing” actually entails.
The late revolutionary and Civil Rights organizer Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael) spoke on the confusion people have with the differences between organization and mobilization - mobilization is “easier” and centered around one issue items (i.e., unionizing Amazon) which usually leads to reform (and sometimes superficial) actions, like rallies. Mobilization is a way of “putting pressure on [the establishment] to do right [by the working class].”
Organization, on the other hand, deals with revolutionary, or radical change, of the system of power as a long term strategy that includes political research, tactical planning, and people being “unified in thought.” We do not want the establishment to just “do right” by the working class - we as the working class want to take power away from them. Empowering the working class with the means to be independent by taking away power from corporations should always be the “big ask” we shoot for. As Ture eloquently stated, “when you want power, you organize - because you don’t want to put [in] influence, you want to seize power for yourself and do for yourself what you are putting pressure for the others to do for you.” Ture summed up the differences between mobilization and organization in this way, which is frequently quoted by Collin - “Mobilization is temporary - organization is permanent and eternal.”
We believe that the unionization of Amazon is merely the compromise of empowering workers, as the higher-ups at Amazon will still have power and influence to negotiate certain rights with workers at the bargaining table. The true end goal, in our opinion, should be that Amazon workers own the means of production, where every employee is a shareholder with personal stake within the company.
We wish that Chris would demand for worker co-ops as the “big ask”that would bring true radical change at Amazon, versus pushing for unionization he described as his long game. But even now, where or what are the demands from Chris and the ALU regarding unionization?
What direct action is Chris willing to lead (a march to Bezos’ penthouse or Howard’s Schultz’s home in New York City over Labor Day weekend does not count, because once again, that is mobilization) that can act as a catalyst for radical change at Amazon in the name of its workers?
What is ALU Beyond Chris Smalls?
Chris can’t be everything, it’s unfair to expect him to be CEO and the head of PR & Marketing. The ALU needs to continue to expose Amazon’s unfair and monstrous practices toward their workers, management enforcing bathroom policies; for example, that they would never agree to themselves. Spotlighting the number of deaths, injuries, workers’ comp cases, the temperatures inside the warehouses on hot days, the illegal management anti-union meetings, and supporting direct ORGANIZING at all the facilities nationwide.
WHY??? Pay close attention to this developing story, maybe closer than you have been…
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