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Christian Smalls speaking at a Senate hearing on May 5, 2022. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Christian Smalls speaking at a Senate hearing on May 5, 2022. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Christian Smalls: From the Amazon Labor Union to the White House

After leading the historic first unionization of an Amazon warehouse in New York, Smalls was in D.C. to testify in the Senate and meet President Biden.

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Earlier this year, Amazon attempted to arrest labor organizer Christian Smalls for distributing food to warehouse employees during a union drive.

Last month, Smalls led the New York City JFK8 warehouse to a historic union victory, and on Thursday, May 5, he spoke before the Senate and met President Joe Biden at the White House.

Smalls, the Amazon Labor Union president, testified in a hearing for the Senate Committee on the Budget, chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has previously shown support for Smalls and the Amazon labor movement.

The hearing surrounded the question of whether tax dollars should be funding corporations that violate labor laws. Representatives from other groups like Good Jobs First, a database on corporate crime, and the Heritage Foundation, a think tank for policy impact, also joined the hearing. 

“We want to feel that we have protections. We want to feel that the government is allowing us to use our constitutional rights to organize,” Smalls said.

Although workers won the union at the JFK8 Amazon warehouse, Amazon has yet to agree to bargain with the workers, despite the legal obligation to do so.

Across the country, Amazon employees have accused the company of trying to suppress their organizing efforts.

According to filings from Amazon with the Department of Labor, the company invested $4.3 million into anti-union consultation in 2021 alone. 

Smalls, who wore a red, yellow and black jacket with the words “Eat the Rich” printed on the front and back, told committee members what tactics Amazon used. 

“They come into the facility. They isolate workers every single day. They question them, pretty much gaslighting them, acting like they’re working to improve the conditions, but really they are just polling to see who’s pro-union and who's not. They report that information back to management,” Smalls said. 

Senate Budget Committee ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham, called the hearing topic “radical” and slammed Sanders for unfairly targeting Amazon. 

“This is an effort to get an outcome you want, using the United States Senate as your vehicle. This is very dangerous. You can have oversight hearings all you like, but you’ve determined Amazon is a piece of crap company,” Graham said.

Graham accused Sanders of singling out a single company due to his political agenda to “socialize” the country. 

Graham also said that the NLRB already has a process in place for workers to file complaints if they feel that they are being treated unfairly, saying that he disagrees with a Senate hearing taking place on this topic at all. 

In response, Smalls told the senator that it’s in his best interest to understand that this issue is not partisan, and that the Amazon Labor Union and others like represent Graham’s constituents as well. 

“The people are the ones that make these corporations go, it’s not the other way around,” Smalls said. 

As Sanders requested, Smalls described the working conditions he experienced at the now-unionizing fulfillment center where he used to work. Workers would typically have a commute of two and a half hours both ways, work a shift of up to 12 hours, and receive minimal break time. 

Smalls said that hundreds of union busters would arrive from across the country and the world, hosting “captive audience” anti-union meetings every 20 minutes with groups of 50 to 60 workers. This would happen four times every week. 

Thursday’s hearing also addressed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which passed the House with a 225-206 vote in early March.

Among other things, the PRO Act would establish civil penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights, authorize monetary compensation for workers who were illegally fired, and allow illegally discharged workers to file civil lawsuits against their employers. 

Although it’s deemed unlikely, if the bill passes in the Senate, it would be one of the biggest pieces of labor reform legislation since the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which protects the rights of employees to organize. 

After the hearing, Smalls visited President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the Oval Office along with other pro-union representatives. 

“These folks are inspiring a movement of workers across the country to fight for the pay and benefits they deserve,” Biden tweeted.

Smalls said on Twitter that Biden told him he “got him in trouble.” This may be referring to the president’s comments in front of union leaders after the JFK8 victory against Amazon, in which Biden said, “Amazon, here we come.”

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