A labor movement’s Jersey roots 

Amazon Labor Union takes on a giant, represents a new generation of workers 

By Kathryn Coulibaly 

To hear Christian (Chris) Smalls and Derrick Palmer tell the story, they were just two New Jersey guys eager to work hard and earn their way through the ranks at Amazon’s Staten Island facility, JFK8, until the pandemic changed everything. 

Smalls, who is now the president of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), and Palmer, ALU vice president, had been disappointed by Amazon before, thanks to promotions that never materialized even as people hired after them moved up. But nothing compared to the health and safety violations and discrimination they witnessed once the global pandemic—and Amazon—made them “essential workers.” 

As the two men told North Plainfield Education Association President Theresa Fuller’s U.S. History 2 and AP U.S. History students, the pandemic changed everything. 

In March 2020, Smalls was a supervisor at JFK8, which employs between 5,000 to 8,000 workers. He’d been a supervisor for four and-a-half years, managing 600 to 800 people, and helping to open up two Amazon facilities. 

Growing up in Hackensack, Smalls loved sports—from basketball to track to football—and music. He studied music and audio research in college and was a rapper. He began working at Amazon’s facility in Carteret in 2015 where he was an entry level employee making $12 an hour. One year later, he was promoted to supervisor. 

Palmer grew up in Piscataway. The same age as Smalls, he had an interest in theater and studied it in college for a time before joining Amazon’s Robbinsville facility. He later moved to the JFK8 facility on Staten Island and was promoted to manager. 

Neither man had much experience with labor unions, but that was about to change. 

“I remember driving to work on empty roads,” Smalls told the students. “The death toll was rising in New York and northern New Jersey. There was no vaccine, but there was also no PPE or safety guidance in place to try to keep employees safe.” 

When their requests for safety protocols and personal protective equipment went unheeded, Smalls and Palmer organized a protest outside the warehouse. Smalls was fired by Amazon, but the protest made the news and, as Smalls said, “It changed my life forever.” 

Smalls was singled-out for attacks on his character and intellect by Amazon.

“I didn’t realize at the time that they had broken the law,” Smalls said. “Jeff Bezos talked about me a week after I was fired. He said I’m not smart or articulate, and he made me the face of the Amazon organizing efforts.” 

Smalls and Palmer posed with a student after their talk.

Doing everything it takes for workers’ rights 

Galvanized by the response to the protest, Smalls and Palmer spent the next year organizing protests at locations that included some of Bezos’ many houses, including a penthouse in New York City and mansions in Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Beverly Hills. 

“We wanted to amplify the malpractices of Amazon,” Smalls said. “We were uplifting essential workers; we weren’t trying to organize a union.”

They heard of efforts to unionize at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, so the two friends took a road trip down to observe the efforts. 

“Amazon spent $25 million to stop workers who make $35,000 a year from protecting themselves,” Smalls said. “The facility included 5,000 workers, 85% of whom were Black and/or Hispanic. We learned from them and we decided to form an individual, worker-led union.”

The idea for the ALU was formed. For the next 11 months, approximately 300 people a day stood outside the Staten Island facility, rain or shine, throughout the summer and winter. Smalls and Palmer were there to greet them.

“I talked to workers every day as they got on and off the bus,” Smalls said. “All those conversations were about how forming this union was the only way to protect yourself.”

In the meantime, Amazon was making their own moves against the union organizers. According to paperwork filed by Amazon with the U.S. Department of Labor, Amazon spent $4.3 million to stop the effort. They mandated meetings where workers were inundated with anti-union rhetoric. Signs declaring “Vote NO” dotted the warehouse. The organizers’ social media was monitored and Amazon vilified the organizers. 

“We were under surveillance,” Smalls said. “We were followed home. They fired people who supported the union organizing efforts. They scared people. Managers watched you closely and tried to get you terminated.”

Smalls was arrested for giving out food and Amazon made up lies about the organizers. They claimed Smalls was going to buy a Lamborghini. Meanwhile, the entire operation was being run on a shoestring, thanks to donations. 

Amazon brought in union busters and paid them $10,000 a day to provide anti-union propaganda. 

“Traditionally, these tactics work,” Smalls said, “But we were able to counteract the lies.” 

Smalls discussed how he and Palmer organized their colleagues to build the first labor union at an Amazon facility.

Meeting Amazon workers where they are

 Smalls and Palmer created a looser, lighter union organizing effort. They held cookouts and played music. They made s’mores for employees waiting to be ferried between their cars and the warehouse. They made TikTok videos and posted on social media.

By the fall, they had delivered more than 2,000 signatures to the National Labor Relations Board, but they were rejected. Amazon claimed that half the people who had signed cards were no longer employed. 

It was a rough time for the organizers, but they continued to build relationships with the employees by being there every day, talking about the union and what they hoped they could accomplish together. 

“I did that to show them I will be here; I will be here for them no matter what,” Smalls said. 

Smalls and Palmer’s presentation aligned with the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Social Studies in addressing industrialization, urbanization and the role of labor unions.

Come to the table and treat your workers right 

That effort paid off. On April 1, 2022, the employees at JFK8 became the first union in American history at an Amazon facility. Even as they celebrated the victory for the 9,000 workers now in their union, their focus shifted to defending the union they had won and settling a contract. 

“We’re negotiating with Amazon now, and they’re up to their same tricks,” Palmer said. “We’re asking for $30 an hour, job security, better medical, a pension, breaks, free college for the employee, their spouse, and their kids.”

“The contract is everything,” Palmer said. 

As Smalls and Palmer pointed out, Amazon has unlimited resources while they continue to rely on donations. Last year, Smalls and Palmer each made $30,000. Palmer is still employed full-time at Amazon. 

“They’re trying to deplete our resources, drag it out in court, and target our members,” Palmer said. “But since we’re certified, they’re legally bound to come to the table.” 

When a student asked what they would say to Bezos right now, Palmer was ready to reply.

“Come to the table and treat your workers right.”

Smalls and Palmer point to parts of society that students are very familiar with to make their case about the power of unions. 

They cite statistics that workers in unionized shops make $12,000 more than nonunionized workers; most make $30 or more an hour. 

“The NBA is a very exclusive club, but those players are protected by a union,” Smalls said. “The NFL and MLB players also belong to a union. Celebrities are in unions—actors, directors, and Hollywood writers. Being in a union is an exclusive club.” 

In addition, the ALU is taking a stand on police brutality, women’s rights, gun violence, environmental justice and more. 

“Without a union, we don’t have a cavalry coming to save us,” Smalls said. “We’re on our own, as individuals. The working class is divided; the ruling class is making decisions for all of us.”  

Smalls and Palmer want to show students that becoming union organizers allows them to address issues they care about, from the environment to social and economic justice.

A new vision for union organizing

Smalls and Palmer are proud that their first school visit  to talk about union organizing is in their home state of New Jersey.

“I’m here today, talking to you, because I wish I’d had somebody cool to talk to me about union organizing,” Smalls said. “When I was in school and we had career day, it was police officers, firefighters and nurses, but no union organizers. If I’d known I could be as cool as a rapper and be a union organizer, I’d have done that.” 

The ALU also is working to help other workers unionize. They are starting to grow and expand as workers in California and upstate New York work to unionize their Amazon warehouses.  

“We’re working hand in hand with other workers trying to organize,” Smalls said. “That’s the labor movement: if you’re in a fight, we stand with you. We’re working together; if one of us wins, we all win.” 

They hope that their efforts encourage those workers trying to unionize at Starbucks, Apple, Trader Joe’s and many others. 

“There’s never a dull moment as an organizer; it’s 24/7 and it’s stressful,” Palmer said. “We hope we change history forever. But the contract will really change things. We hope this movement trickles down to Walmart, Whole Foods, Target and more.” 

For Theresa Fuller, the decision to invite Smalls and Palmer to speak fit nicely into the curriculum. 

“This guest speaker event directly supports the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Social Studies, which includes a detailed examination of the problems related to industrialization and urbanization in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” Fuller said. “Our classroom lessons engaged students in a variety of discussions about how industrialization and urbanization affected class structure, family life, the daily lives of men, women, and children, and the environment, as well as how events led to the creation of labor and agricultural organizations and the impact of those organizations on workers’ rights, the economy, and politics across time periods.  

“When I met Chris and Derrick at the NJEA Convention, I immediately knew that I wanted to invite them to speak with my students so they could share their experiences in building a modern labor union, as well as fighting for worker rights in our society. This experience helped provide my students with context for the real-world and encouraged students to envision their own futures.”

Smalls and Palmer are eager to share their story with other schools and organizations. To request speakers, go to amazonlaborunion.org/contact. 

One thing is clear: they want to encourage high school students, and everyone who hears their story, to take this message with them.

“Don’t take this moment for granted,” Palmer said. “Look at what we’ve been doing. You’re young, but you understand your value.” 

Smalls and Palmer have not forgotten the people who lost their lives working in the warehouse during the pandemic. 

“We know people who died in that warehouse,” Palmer said. “The law says they cannot fire you for protesting over health and safety. We have a class-action lawsuit against Amazon. It’s going to be a long legal battle.” 

But as Smalls and Palmer have already proven, they should not be underestimated. 

“No amount of money in the world can overcome people who are together,” Smalls said. 

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org

You can help the ALU 

Follow the ALU on social media  

Twitter – @amazonlabor  

Instagram – @amazonlaborunion

Tik Tok – @amazonlaborunion

Visit amazonlaborunion.org and sign up for emails. 

Donate to the ALU. 

Contact Amazon and ask them to settle the contract with the ALU—post on social media, on Amazon’s Instagram ads, etc.  

Shop local and patronize unionized stores and businesses.