Three years ago, Chris Smalls was just a regular person, a worker. He worked 50 to 60 hours at an Amazon warehouse during the weekdays and lived his life on the weekends. He had never imagined himself as a labor organizer. He was, at one point, very committed to the company. However, in March 2020, during the first wave of Covid-19, Chris walked out of the Amazon warehouse after being told by his managers that he had to keep a secret from his coworkers that the company is forcing workers who were ill with Covid-19 to work in the warehouse. Chris remarked, “that day was my last day working for Amazon. I walked out of there that day as an employee, and the next day, I came back as an organizer”.
Three years later, as president of Amazon Labor Union (ALU), Chris Smalls shared his organizing lessons at the Toronto and York Region launch of the Ontario Federation of Labour campaign Enough is Enough.
Don’t wait for others to do the organizing
Chris began his organizing effort with only a handful of his Amazon coworkers. They had no intention of waiting for any established union to approach them. They began their movement by setting up a camp adjacent to a bus stop near the warehouse and talking to workers entering and leaving the warehouse. They organized and built unity through the recognition of shared experiences of exploitation.
The outcome is an independent movement that emerged from below. A movement that is fully driven by workers and free from the weight of complicated bureaucracy, hierarchy, and other baggage that many established unions bring.
Organizing is about building relationships
Organizers have to be able to build relationships with workers. The reason why ALU organizers are so effective in building relationships is that they themselves are workers inside the warehouse. They spend the majority of their time working side by side with workers they try to organize. Their coworkers trust them because they can relate to the problems they share. However, this does not mean that outside organizers cannot build a relationship with workers on the inside. Chris stated that building relationships with workers is about listening and caring for them. An organizer cannot relate exactly to every issue that workers are facing, but they can express sympathy and respect to them.
“[Amazon] can’t calculate me caring for one another, me having a conversation, me giving somebody a hug because they had a bad day, somebody crying on my shoulder when they had a bad day, and [Amazon] can’t figure that out … why does this small group of workers able to galvanize thousands of workers to vote for a union when we’re giving them all these propaganda”
As for how organizers can win workers’ trust, Chris stated that in organizing, “availability is the best accountability”. Organizers gained workers’ trust by being available, especially at times when workers needed them.
Focus on solidarity
Amazon is ruthless when it comes to union busting. They invested millions of dollars in various programs and strategies designed to detect and destroy any organizing activity before it even gets off the ground. One of the oldest tricks that Amazon is employing to prevent unionization is to create and maintain divisions between workers. Chris said that during his campaign, he realized that Amazon is dividing their workers along racial lines. Amazon even used racist tropes to discredit him and his organizing effort by painting him as a gangbanger attempting to get rich from union dues.
Organizers must be able to bring workers together, irrespective of race, gender, religion, politics, or any kind of identity distinction. Organizers cannot let the differences between them and their fellow workers prevent them from building relationships.
When it comes to organizing, Chris stated “you can’t leave the fight because you don’t get along with somebody. You can’t leave the fight because you don’t have the same ideology or politics”.
Instead, we must build and solidify unity through solidarity. Our solidarity comes from the recognition of the commonality of our needs and struggles. Workers need better working conditions and higher wages. We need better healthcare when we are sick. We want our children to eat healthy food and receive a higher-quality education. We desire to live in a world with fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink. We also share common enemies. Our enemies are those who are stopping us from achieving those things that we need. Our enemies are the people who profit from the exploitation of our life and our environment. As organizers, we need to focus on those shared needs and struggles and base our movements on them.
Have joy in organizing
Organizing workers is not easy. Organizers are fighting more than just bosses, we are fighting the entire capitalist system. We must find ways to make organizing fun.
ALU organizers understand the importance of having fun in organizing. They regularly have parties, bonfires, potlucks and barbeques near the bus station so their colleagues can hang out, eat and have a little fun after a gruelling shift in the warehouse. Their conversation does not always revolve around the struggle.
The organizers came up with fun activities to counter Amazon’s relentless union-busting attempts. Amazon spent millions of dollars hiring undercover union busters to pit workers against the organizers. In response, ALU came up with a game called “Spot a Union Buster” in which workers competed with each other to identify union busters among workers in the warehouse and make fun of them when they are spotted.
Chris repeatedly emphasized that “organizing is a marathon, not a sprint”. Organizing is a long-term struggle and organizers must be able to remain committed to the fight. For ALU organizers, being committed to the fight is to show up at that bus stop every day, ready to agitate, educate, and organize.
“You are going to have days of doubt and defeat. We have people who walk past us for two to three months, won’t even look at me. But, that day when management get on their ass, you got to be there. Because if you are not, then you have lost already”.
Stay independent from politicians
Organizing workers is political. However, organizers should be independent of politicians and political parties. Time and time again, we see politicians and political parties appropriating workers’ movements to advance their own agendas. Politicians will come to your rallies, get in the spotlight, say sweet words and pledge their support, but when they get to office and have the opportunity to endorse bills that would better workers’ lives, they frequently fail. When a union endorses a politician who later failed in their promises to fight for workers’ rights, the union would lose the workers’ trust.
Chris also criticizes established unions for endorsing politicians who do not represent workers. “We don’t endorse politicians, so don’t show up to my rally thinking you’re getting endorsement, it’s not happening”.
Take on the bosses
Chris recounted an incident during his campaign when an Amazon worker approached him and told him that her manager had been sexually harassing her and her colleagues. Amazon was not holding him accountable, and instead was attempting to blame the women. Chris said that after hearing her story, he immediately put the campaign on hold and started a rally outside the warehouse calling out Amazon for protecting the abusive manager. Amazon terminated the abusive manager the next day. Chris claimed that after that day, ALU started to see increasing support from workers.
What organizers can learn from this story is that the ultimate goal of organizing is to protect workers and take on the bosses. Organizing workers does not end when the vote is won. It is only the beginning. The goal of organizing is not to get more members, collect more dues, or gain political clout. We organize workers to build a movement strong enough to end bosses’ exploitation and abuse of workers.
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