By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Christian Smalls of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is much in the news lately, and deservedly so. In fact, Amazon (and Starbucks) union organizing is one of th very few spots I would consider bright in the current discouse of Covid denialism and war pron. In this brief post, I’ll review last Sunday’s ALU rally, and the press coverage of Smalls. I’ll conclude with some remarks on the press.
Before I begin, though, I’d like to issue a caveat on ALU coverage generally. The “real story” is out there in rooms “we” do not visit, at bus stops where “we” do not wait, and in halls, churches, and homes “we” do not visit, and the story takes years. ALU is a mass movement, and most of that movement is not visible except to those engaged in it (rather like war, come to think of it). Labor reporting in the United States is pitifully thin, and in most cases filed under the Business Section. So, there is an iceberg out there, and through our media we only see the tip of it, with a few, now public figures, some of them holding megaphones and signs. We take — through the process of synecdoche (“part for whole”) those tiny figures for the whole of the iceberg. That’s not only untrue, it’s very dangerous: When you confuse “leaders” with a movement (“voices,” as Adolph Reed called them) you end up with, say, the “leaders” of Black Lives Matter detaching themselves from the movement purchasing an expensive mansion for what seems to be their personal use. So, if Gods there are, and if they are indeed good, I’m begging and praying that Smalls and ALU organizers generally understand this dynamic and are level-headed enough to resist it. That said, let’s look at the rally.
The Gothamist describes the rally in “Heavy hitters join rally for Amazon workers ahead of second Staten Island warehouse’s union election,” (I’m not real happy with that headline; the “heavy hitters” are the workers themselves, who are, after all, doing all the work and taking all the risk. Not that I’d substitute “hop on the bandwagon” for “join rally,” because things aren’t that simple, but when the thought came into my mind, it was hard to resist.) To the Gothamist:
Labor advocates added big names to their cause on Sunday as Amazon Labor Union organizers rallied ahead of another big election this week.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rallied alongside Amazon Labor Union leaders on Staten Island on Sunday, just one day ahead of a vote to unionize a second Amazon warehouse known at LDJ5 – just across the street from the JFK8 warehouse that voted to unionize earlier this month.
(The voting at LDJ5 has begun, and is open ’til Friday). More:
Speaking to Gothamist after the rally on Sunday, LDJ5 worker Madeline Wesley said it was important to see national figures like the senator and congresswoman throwing support behind the cause.
“It’s important for the workers at LDJ5 to see that the community supports us in our fight,” said Wesley, who also works as treasurer of the Amazon Labor Union. “That we are not alone in this.”
Note the framing: The “labor advocates” are not the workers themselves, or their union, but electeds; and even the ALU treasurer identifies the electeds with “the community.” It’s not bad that the electeds are there — especially if AOC really could ding Amazon for a few hundred million in taxes (ALU letter)– but let’s grant some agency to the workers, mkay?
That said, here’s AOC:
The progressive congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told Amazon’s first unionized workers in New York on Sunday that their victory was “the first domino to fall” in what she expected to be a wave of similar votes for representation across the country.
The leftwing Democrat joined Vermont senator Bernie Sanders on stage in Staten Island to celebrate the historic achievement and to call for workers in more Amazon facilities in the US to follow their example.
“What happened out here … what you guys did in Staten Island was just the beginning. It was the first domino to fall,” she said, noting that workers at a second Amazon sorting facility in the New York borough were voting on Monday.
“We have another election tomorrow, and we’re going to support them in that. And the day after that, and the day after that, all the way. But what we need Amazon to do first and foremost is to recognize the union that won their election.”
Not so sure about “you guys.” But if AOC can beat some sense into Amazon — Amazon’s union-busting operation were run by Democrats after all — then good. So she should go do that.
“What this struggle is about, it’s not just Amazon Staten Island. This is the struggle that is taking place all across this country. Working people are sick and tired of falling further and further behind while billionaires like [Amazon founder Jeff] Bezos becomes much richer,” Sanders told the crowd of more than 300 people gathered near the bus stop that’s become the nucleus for ALU’s drive.
Today’s message — Smalls’ message — is a little different from “Working people are sick and tired of falling further and further behind.” Check out this picture, where Sanders makes a similar point:
“Jeff when you’re out on your yacht think about the employees in Staten Island. They want housing that’s affordable and to put away a few bucks.” pic.twitter.com/6O1B66ixa6
— Lauren Kaori Gurley (@LaurenKGurley) April 24, 2022
I love this photo; Smalls’ “Eat the Rich” jacket is so stylish. But the message of Smalls’ jacket is not “put away a few bucks.” It’s also clear in the photo who’s running the show, and it’s not Sanders.
Finally — unmentioned in most coverage — union leadership. From Jacobin:
“I have spent twenty-five years fighting and trying to get workers to wake up to the power that we have together, and this is it,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA)-CWA, as we stood in the crowd before the afternoon rally at which she was a headliner. The Teamsters’s new president Sean O’Brien met with Smalls and ALU vice president of organizing Derrick Palmer in Washington, DC, earlier this month and had been scheduled to speak at the rally too, but workers say travel complications led to his appearance being canceled. Other speakers included American Postal Workers Union (APWU) president Mark Dimondstein and AFT president Randi Weingarten, both of whom pledged to throw their full support behind the ALU. (Another speaker, socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, did likewise, announcing in her speech that she was donating $20,000 to the union).
“This is where it’s happening: it’s happening here and it’s happening at Starbucks,” says Nelson. “.”
(Good for Kshama Sawant; couldn’t AOC and Sanders also have written checks, or induced them to be written?) “The working people are taking over” is the kind of messaging I want to hear (and it’s not the message the electeds are sending.)
So what about Smalls’ messaging? So far, it’s consistent and I’m hopeful. This was the first tweet I saw from Smalls on the rally:
— Christian Smalls (@Shut_downAmazon) April 24, 2022
First tweet out of the box, and the focus is the literature table and food! More:
— Christian Smalls (@Shut_downAmazon) April 25, 2022
“Just ordinary people.” More:
Chill twitter fingers it’s Workers running shit over here from here on you’re looking at the New School of the Labor Movement @amazonlabor ✊🏽
— Christian Smalls (@Shut_downAmazon) April 25, 2022
“New school.” More:
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) April 23, 2022
“Everything a union can provide, we want to provide.” (Not exactly control of the means of production, but our baseline is so low….) More:
You’re focused on me I’m focused on We
— Christian Smalls (@Shut_downAmazon) April 15, 2022
“We,” If Smalls can stick with this, he won’t be buying a mansion, and a good thing, too. One more shot of the jacket:
— Steve Fox (@smfox) April 24, 2022
New school, indeed….
Now, let’s turn to the media critique, starting with the New York Times, “How Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer Beat Amazon and Created a Union.” Remember what I said about the tiny figures standing atop the massive iceberg? There it is, in the headline: Two friends. This transcript is fascinating and well worth a read, as the Times reporters fit what Smalls and Palmer have to say into their own expert frames. For example, on Covid. The Times interviewers are Michael Barbaro and Jodi Kantor:
[BARBARO:] So you’re both, Chris and Derrick, initially enthusiastic about Amazon. You see yourself as succeeding in your work. But you start to question that, it sounds, based on your inability to rise. How does that work start to change at this warehouse as the pandemic hits?
SMALLS: Well, it was just the fact that we were in the dark. We didn’t know what the hell we was doing or what was going on with the virus. Because we’re watching it on the news and the company is doing something else.
SMALLS: So it was something off in there, something off in the building with managers, with communication. And I’m like, what the hell is going on here. We’re in the break room sitting shoulder to shoulder. And Derrick can tell you, we were sitting there joking we’re all going to die because we’re sitting shoulder to shoulder. And we’re watching CNN and they’re telling us we need to be six feet apart with masks.
And the Times interprets:
[KANTOR:] in the warehouse. Our reporting showed that the information Amazon was providing to workers at this point was pretty spotty. And workers in the warehouse really did not have a clear sense of what was going on with Covid cases in their own building.
“We’re all going to die because we’re sitting shoulder to shoulder.” Does that sound “confused” to you? Many a true word spoken in jest!
Now from CBS, “The resurgence of unions and the fight against Amazon.” Some good detail here, but wait for the sting:
Smalls, a former Amazon worker, led the union drive, but that wasn’t his original plan: “I had no intentions on unionizing. Just trying to do the right things, and protect people from dying from COVID-19.”
In March 2020, he’d organized a walkout to protest the lack of face masks and other COVID gear at JFK8. Amazon fired him, and in a leaked memo, an executive called him “Not smart or articulate.””
Smalls soon learned that he wasn’t the only unhappy Amazonian. Another Amazon warehouse on Staten Island begins a unionizing vote tomorrow.
Workers Brett, Mat, and Martha have been talking to fellow employees out front. “They take care of the robots better than humans,” Brett told Pogue. “They don’t give you ample amount of time to go to the bathroom.”
Martha said, “You got people that’s barely making enough.”
Mat said, “We want to be able to say, ‘These things have to change,’ and negotiate that in a contract.”
Smalls’ strategy to unionize JFK8 involved a social-media campaign and small, grassroots gestures, all paid for by donations: “We would feed them, you know, pizza, catered food, soul food, different cultural food. That’s what the union represents, you know? Taking care of one another.”
Amazon fought back, hard, using the standard union-busting playbook. It spent over $4 million on consultants, and required every employee to attend anti-union meetings.
….Pogue said to Smalls, ““
“Pretty much!” he laughed.
N-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!!!!!! Smalls fed people out of solidarity (ffs).
Now from Time, “He Came Out of Nowhere and Humbled Amazon. Is Chris Smalls the Future of Labor?” The same thing; good detail, but wait for the sting:
Smalls says the triumph was the result of a different way of thinking about labor organizing. “This is the new school,” he says as Mitchell-Israel orders 800 chicken wings to feed Amazon workers on their break. ”Old school” is Big Labor, the existing 20th-century union infrastructure. “The ALU represents the new face, the new-school style of 21st century organizing, ” he adds. “Where younger adults are taking charge and .”
Smalls means “workers” in the specific sense—as in, people employed by Amazon—and not “workers” in the general sense, which is often used as a catchall term in labor circles to mean anyone who isn’t in management. This is just one of the ways that Smalls deviates from the well-worn progressive rhetoric that may energize college-educated liberals but means little to Amazon employees. “We don’t go home and turn on CNN, we don’t go home and turn on Fox,” he says, noting that Amazon workers are often too tired to follow politics. “If I brought AOC and Bernie out here, I would have to inform the workers who they are and what they represent.””
Which, ironically enough, is what Smalls did. More:
Smalls may be organizing out of a black Chevy Suburban packed with iced tea bottles and rolling papers, but it’s clear that Amazon underestimated his savvy. In a memo that leaked shortly after his firing, Amazon lawyers said that Smalls was “not smart, or articulate.” But Smalls’ understanding of what it’s like to work at Amazon is one reason why he and Palmer succeeded where larger, more powerful unions have failed. Only last year, Amazon beat back a unionization effort driven by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union at a Bessemer, Alabama facility in what was then the biggest labor drive in the company’s history. (The union challenged the decision with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming Amazon illegally interfered in the election. A final result is still pending.)
Smalls has an idea of why that effort fell short. “The timing, the approach, the campaign—it was just all wrong from the beginning,” he says of the Bessemer union drive. Alabama’s right-to-work laws presented challenges; the plant was new enough that workers weren’t as disillusioned as at JFK8.
Most importantly? The drive was organized by an “established union, a third party that doesn’t know Amazon,” Smalls says.
“In order to get it done, you gotta build from within,” he adds. “Not from the outside, but from the inside out.”
“Many of the labor unions are very disconnected from the workers that they serve,” says [Justine Medina, a “salt” who joined Amazon to help with the organizing effort], adding that many of the officers in the big labor unions are “out of grad school.”
“They mean well,” she adds. “But there’s just a slightly different class composition.”
And speaking of class composition, here’s the sting:
Experts say that the activism of the past few years—from #MeToo to Black Lives Matter to walkouts at major tech companies— has seeped into organized labor. The new model is “young people organizing young people, it’s non-white people organizing majority non-white workforces,” says Wilma Liebman, who served as chair of the National Labor Relations Board under President Obama. “Unions clearly have to adapt to the changing demographic of the workforces.”
They’ve got to bring in identity politics! (And note the extremely sloppy causal thinking in “seeped.” (There’s also a plug for Randi Weingarten, whose going to donate money so ALU can get better office space [vomits quietly].
Reading this coverage is interesting, because it’s a bit of a throwback to where “reporters” actually went out and interviewed people and tried to understand facts on the ground; you can sense the reporters, for all their class biases, enjoyed writing these stories. But there’s also a time when the press turns on the “voices” it builds up, and starts pulling the wings off flies1]. I haven’t quoted Bourdieu for awhile, but he has actually addressed this phenomenon. From Forms of Capital, page 64. Bourdieu is writing about the “hit parade” of books to be reviewed, but the same dynamic applies to the rise (and fall) of any public figure. The press are told “You must cover this public figure:
The combination of this very strong constraint with a rampant anti-intellectualism [the press does not originate; it reports] has the consequence sooner or later that . Again, this is not a deliberate decision, but it is very embarassing when you [like Smalls] are at the top of the hit parade, for you are structurally exposed. The actual or potential victim may feel it as a plot (“They resent me,” “They are out to get me,” “It’s the right/left who are out to get me,” “It’s the government,” and so on)…. “We absolutely, have to discuss So-and-s0, but he’s a pain in the arse, he could become the new Sartre [Eugene Debs], better shoot him down first… [laughter]”
(Heaven help Smalls, for example, if he has anything #MeToo-ish in his background. From everything — from, really, the little — I have been able to read about Smalls (and the other figures on top of the iceberg) he’s extremely level-headed and focused, and should be able to endure this dynamic, but there’s no reason not to prepare for it. In any case, as I said at the beginning, I’m hopeful.
 AOC, although her faults are real, was also subject to this phenomenon.