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Celebrating Black History: Chris Smalls

Martina Manicastri
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Chris Smalls, born in 1988 in Hackensack, New Jersey, is currently making history in his role as President of the recently established Amazon Labor Union. He began his career with Amazon in 2015 as a picker in a warehouse in New Jersey. He transferred to Connecticut briefly before being promoted to Assistant Manager of the newly opened Staten Island, NY JFK8 warehouse in 2018. 

His decision to begin organizing his workplace came following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when a co-worker was made to come into work while visibly sick as he waited on COVID-19 test results. It was later confirmed that Smalls and his coworkers were in fact exposed to the virus as a result. After reaching out to HR about the issue and being told there was nothing to be done, Smalls and a coworker, Derrick Palmer, organized a walkout in protest of unsafe working conditions. Smalls was consequently and immediately fired by Amazon, leading to a series of prominent politicians to call on Amazon to reinstate Smalls and the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the case. 

A photo of Chris Smalls next to a quote of his that says "We cannot allow billionaires and the 1% class to continue making decisions for the rest of us"

Shortly after, the general counsel for Amazon, David Zapolsky, was revealed to have referred to Smalls as “not smart or articulate” and suggested creating a smear campaign surrounding Smalls that would also attack worker organizing and unionization. The leaked memo serves as an example of the lengths corporations are willing to go to prevent worker power and is further evidence for why we need unions. 

After being fired, Smalls and fellow Amazon coworkers founded the Congress of Essential Workers, an advocacy group dedicated to fighting for worker safety protections during COVID-19 and for protections from retaliation by Amazon. The CEW ultimately laid the groundwork for the Amazon Labor Union established in April of 2021. 

When asked about why Smalls and his coworker Derrick Palmer chose to organize their own union rather than trying to join an established union, he argued that the union effort at Amazon needed to be a grassroots effort that came directly from Amazon workers themselves. Upon the establishment of ALU and its representation of Smalls’ former warehouse JFK8, over 50 other Amazon warehouses reached out to the ALU hoping to enlist their assistance with unionizing their workplace. 

Chris Smalls is making history by taking on one of America’s largest corporations and employers, and his commitment to his fellow workers is a testament to the solidarity that makes unions strong.