The Amazon union president told the Bodega Boys about why he decided to take on Amazon, and also about his brief rap career.
Science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” There’s perhaps no behemoth more omnipresent than Amazon, which transitioned from innocuously selling books online to making surveillance partnerships with police. But just like kings, Amazon’s reign will fall. And this week, Chris Smalls, one of the workers leading the charge against Amazon, outlined what it takes to make Amazon weaker.
You probably heard Smalls’s name in April after Amazon workers on New York’s Staten Island voted to unionize. Smalls became president of the new union. While the vote was a huge blow to the anti-union giant, both the union’s existence and Small’s activism are entirely of its own creation. On Monday, Smalls appeared on the Showtime show Desus & Mero, where he talked about his time working as a supervisor at the New York warehouse.
“During the pandemic, we were deemed essential workers,” Smalls said. “We had to ship out PPE, but we weren’t receiving that in the warehouse.” He went on to add that he watched people come into work with flu-like symptoms. Sometimes, people were even vomiting at their work stations and unable to complete their shifts, he said.
Watching his co-workers deteriorate inspired Smalls to take action. He told the hosts that he tried going through the proper channels, but both HR and upper management dismissed Smalls’s concerns. So, he planned a walkout, which resulted in Amazon firing him for “violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk.”
Even ignoring the irony of that comment, Amazon’s decision was a big mistake.
“After I was terminated, it gained national attention,” Smalls said. “Jeff Bezos himself had a meeting about me calling me ‘not smart or articulate.’ Ironically, they said to make me the face of the whole unionizing efforts.”
Smalls’s summary doesn’t really capture the notes from said meeting. Luckily, Vice News obtained some comments from Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, made in April 2019: “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.”
Amazon tried to tap into anti-Black and classist dogwhistles to discredit Smalls. The notion of Smalls not being smart rested not only on him being a Black man but a Black man that has, as Teen Vogue noted, overall drip. He wears grills, gold chains, and he also used to rap. “I had a nice little run. I was an independent artist 10 years ago. I dropped out of college. I went to school in Florida, came back to New York,” Smalls told show hosts Desus Nice and The Kid Mero. He attended the Institute of Audio Research, but “I didn’t finish that program ‘cause I felt that I was hot shit. I dropped out of that and started making music,” Smalls said.
Amazon’s decision to make Smalls into the face of union efforts rested on assumptions that everybody would abandon him. Maybe Amazon’s top executives are just afraid of Black people being Black? Me personally, I’ll stand up for anybody who’ll meet President Biden at the White House in a jacket saying “Eat the Rich” on the back.
Throughout the whirlwind of becoming the Amazon Labor Union’s first president, Smalls has been clear that this victory wasn’t because of him alone. As The New York Times reported, his best friend, Derrick Palmer, helped make TikTok videos to reach workers during the initial push and build bonfires to keep people warm while waiting at the bus stop outside of the Staten Island warehouse.
Nationwide, the labor movement is growing, as workers look to unionize at other massive corporations like Starbucks. The story of Smalls’s work thus far is a perfect example of what it takes to bring down corporate monsters today.