How Chris Smalls built a labor movement that led to Amazon workers' first union Chris Smalls didn't rely on traditional labor groups for funding or organizing power. Instead he raised money through GoFundMe and talked to former coworkers at their bus stop and over S'mores.

He was fired by Amazon 2 years ago. Now he's the force behind the company's 1st union

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Amazon workers in Staten Island have voted to become the first in the U.S. at that company to unionize.


SIMON: And that was after an energetic and well-funded campaign against forming a union on the part of Amazon, which had a history of successfully defeating efforts to organize. NPR's Andrea Hsu has been watching the story - joins us now.

Andrea, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: And tell us, please, about this facility on Staten Island where workers have voted to unionize.

HSU: Yeah, it's a huge warehouse. It's the largest of four Amazon facilities on Staten Island. More than 8,000 people work there, picking up items for customer orders and packaging them. And more than half of those workers turned out for this election. And in the end, the union came out on top by a pretty sizable margin. But, you know, it was a tough road getting there.

The organizing was led by this former Amazon supervisor, Chris Smalls, who just created something he called the Amazon Labor Union. He spent months last year gathering enough signatures to petition for a vote. He had to do it all over again after the first petition was rejected. And he raised money for all of this through GoFundMe. They didn't have the deep pockets and organizing power of Big Labor behind them. And, as you said, Amazon put on a fierce counter campaign. They held mandatory meetings at which workers were told they're better off without a union. And they did convince quite a few people. By no means was this a landslide.

SIMON: Well, what seems to have made this effort at unionization successful, where others at Amazon have not been?

HSU: Well, a lot of it really was people like Smalls and his co-founder, Derrick Palmer, reaching out to their friends and co-workers. The local bus stop became their gathering place. They'd catch workers heading home from their shifts. They'd have a bonfire going and s'mores. And Smalls said this is where they drummed up support based on their common experiences.

CHRIS SMALLS: We are Amazon workers. Whether we former or current, we know the ins and outs of the company. We know these grievances better than anybody. We live this reality every single day. I lived it for five years. They're still living it. You know, this is what it's about.

SIMON: Andrea, Chris - we want to note that Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters and also distributes certain NPR content. What has been the reaction from the company?

HSU: Well, Amazon said it's disappointed in the outcome of the election and indicated it may file formal objections. But the union's going to look to collective bargaining now. They have a long list of demands - everything from higher wages to longer breaks to better health and safety protections. And they're also busy with another union election later this month at the Amazon warehouse that's just across the street. You know, outside observers say the Staten Island vote is a real breakthrough.

Here's what Patricia Campos-Medina of Cornell's Worker Institute told me.

PATRICIA CAMPOS-MEDINA: This is like the spark that lights the fire.

HSU: And she says, you know, you can expect to see Big Labor jump on the bandwagon now that everyone sees organizing at Amazon can be done.

CAMPOS-MEDINA: The AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, the UFCW, SEIU - all those unions who have been claiming that they were going to organize Amazon - now they're going to pay attention.

SIMON: But, Andrea, how much is this one vote - so far, isolated - an indication that unionization at other Amazon facilities elsewhere may have a better chance of success?

HSU: Well, you know, even Chris Smalls acknowledges that Staten Island is a much more union friendly place than most. Here's how he put it.

SMALLS: New York is a union town. I do know that every worker knows somebody that's in the union, related to somebody that's in the union. The bus drivers - they get off the bus every day. They speak to union members.

HSU: He says it's a much steeper climb in places like Bessemer, Ala., where votes were also counted this week in a do-over election there. That one is too close to call, and we may not get a result for weeks. And let's not forget, this is Amazon. They have spent millions to fight the union campaigns and have millions more where that came from.

SIMON: NPR's Andrea Hsu - thanks so much.

HSU: You're welcome.

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