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The man who led the 1st Amazon warehouse to unionize in America

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

OK. It's a firing that will go down in the history of Amazon. A man fired by the company two years ago has now organized Amazon's first unionized warehouse in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS SMALLS: I hope that everybody's paying attention now because a lot of people doubted us.

CHANG: The story of Chris Smalls and his fledgling Amazon labor union in Staten Island is one of the biggest underdog victories in modern corporate history. We should note that Amazon is among NPR's sponsors and distributes certain NPR content.

All right. So we're going to be joined now by NPR's Alina Selyukh, who's been covering Amazon union efforts for several years. Hey, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello, hello.

CHANG: All right. So let's just begin with why this is such a huge story. Explain.

SELYUKH: Everyone loves an underdog story, and this one is irresistible. Getting a union at Amazon has long been insurmountable for labor, and the stakes in Staten Island were huge. We're talking about forming one of the largest unionized warehouses in the country - 8,300 workers.

And there is an incredible human story behind it. The Amazon Labor Union is a ragtag team of current and former workers prevailing against a company worth almost $2 trillion. The group has been described as a Cinderella story, guerrilla campaign, David and Goliath, the mouse that roared. I can keep going, but you get the theme, right?

CHANG: Right - lots of different analogies there. I mean, we did mention the man running this group was, in fact, fired by Amazon. Can you just tell us what exactly happened two years ago?

SELYUKH: Yeah. So his name is Christian Smalls - Chris Smalls. As a young guy, he tried to be a rapper. Then he had twins, needed reliable pay, began working at warehouses. And when the pandemic started, he was a manager at Amazon on Staten Island. This was a really scary time - remember? - and people were terrified of going to work in person.

Smalls and a few coworkers organized a walkout, demanding safer conditions. And that day, Smalls got fired, accused, ironically, of violating COVID protocol. So that's how he became a full-time activist. He went around the country staging essential worker protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMALLS: There's no way in hell we gone let this moment pass - no way.

SELYUKH: Amazon executives watched every move. One internal memo got leaked to the media, and in it were the words that lit a fire under Smalls to unionize the warehouse. The company's top lawyer called Smalls, quote, "not smart or articulate."

CHANG: Oh.

SELYUKH: The lawyer said that's why Amazon should make Smalls the face of the labor effort in Staten Island, and that is when Smalls started the Amazon Labor Union.

CHANG: Words I'm sure this lawyer regretted. Well, we should point out that this Amazon labor union is not affiliated with any professional union, and Smalls is not a union guy. So I'm just curious, like, what was his labor campaign like?

SELYUKH: I'd say three words - chaotic, defiant and persistent. I spent a bit of time with Smalls last fall. He was showing his Chevy Suburban. That was, like, the nerve center of the campaign. There was so much stuff inside.

SMALLS: We have a barbecue pit, a fire pit. We make s'mores for the workers at night, hand out hot chocolate, coffee.

SELYUKH: And all of that lives in your car.

SMALLS: All of this lives in my car - speaker, generator, lights, tables, chairs.

CHANG: Wow.

SELYUKH: Smalls fully dedicated his life to this. He and his team were constantly at a bus stop in front of the Staten Island warehouse, offering workers free food, drinks, sometimes weed, grilling, blasting music. Amazon managers regularly accused him of trespassing. This February, they even called the police, who arrested him. But now they have to contend with the Amazon Labor Union, which is actually staging another union vote at a nearby Amazon warehouse at the end of the month.

CHANG: That is NPR's Alina Selyukh. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.