Chris Small’s rise to fame came quickly and for an unexpected reason.
As a teenager, Smalls was a rapper, arranging and promoting his own concerts using printed flyers and word of mouth, developing skills as an “independent organizer.”
However, by a twist in fate and timing, it was not music, but labor organizing during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, that made him famous.
“If you would have told me I could have been as cool as a rapper as a union organizer, I would have been doing this a long time ago,” Smalls, the 33-year-old president of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), joked during a speech at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus last week. Over the past three years, Smalls has become perhaps the best-known figure in the country’s resurgent labor movement, defined by a surge in unionization efforts at Amazon, Starbucks, REI and many other companies.
These days, when he’s not busy with union work, he’s often traveling the country, attempting to educate young people about the labor movement.
“I think it’s important to spread the word and spread the message because of this resurgence of labor, and labor being a hot discussion. Me being one of the [most prominent] faces, I think it’s important that everybody has a chance to have the one-on-one conversation and ask questions that they have about forming unions in this country,” Smalls told the Bohemian in an interview.
On Thursday, April 20, the two-year anniversary of the creation of the ALU, Smalls visited a Trader Joe’s in Oakland, where workers were voting on whether or not to unionize. (With a 73-53 vote, they became the first West Coast Trader Joe’s store to do so.)
The same day, he critiqued President Joe Biden on Twitter, after the president (or, more realistically, his social media team) proclaimed himself to be “the most pro-union president in American history.”
Smalls, who visited with Biden at the White House with other labor leaders last May, replied: “It’s been crickets ever since… photo ops [don’t] make you pro union nor do tweets.”
The next day, Smalls addressed a few hundred students at the “We the Future” conference in Petaluma. Organized by the Santa Rosa Junior College and North Bay Organizing Project, the conference’s theme was “Justice for the Generations: The New Realities of Work, School, and Identity.” Other speakers included local organizers working on tenant protections, youth mental health and universal health care.
“After enduring three years of uncertainty due to the pandemic and the continuing challenges of climate change, the We the Future conference organizers understand that we cannot go back to ‘normal’ and that ‘normal’ wasn’t working, to begin with,” the conference’s website states.
Smalls was a fitting choice to headline the event. His beginnings as a labor organizer and rise to national notoriety began during the pandemic, as companies praised workers as “essential” publicly, without offering adequate workplace protections.
“I think the pandemic was the catalyst for a lot of this… You saw this little uprising of labor unions after the Great Depression. You’re seeing that now as history repeats itself. The pandemic, being that all of us are essential workers, no matter what industry you’re in, I think workers realized their value is a lot more than what we’ve been getting,” Smalls said during his speech. “It’s just the timing for me, you know: my firing, COVID. That combination right there amplified me into the media.”
Before March 2020, Smalls was “just living his life.” To pay the bills and support his children, he had worked as a supervisor at Amazon for over four years, helping to open multiple warehouses before landing at the company’s Staten Island location. But, when the pandemic hit New York hard, Smalls helped organize a walk-out protest of the company’s lack of workplace protections.
Smalls was fired after the protest, with the company claiming he had violated social distancing guidelines. Instead of moving on, Smalls embraced his new life in the labor movement.
Soon, he was in Bessemer, Alabama, where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, an established union, was attempting to organize workers in the local Amazon warehouse. The campaign drew national attention and support from a few high-profile politicians but, ultimately, workers voted against the union by an overwhelming margin. (In November 2021, the National Labor Relations Board ordered a second vote at the warehouse, but the union lost again, this time by a smaller margin.)
Though Amazon’s massive spending against the campaign was certainly a factor, Smalls accredits the failure in part to outside organizers’ lack of understanding of how Amazon warehouses work.
Upon returning home, Smalls helped found the ALU, an independent union, on April 20, 2021. Just shy of a year later, after lots of organizing, the ALU celebrated a historic win: Despite Amazon waging a costly anti-union campaign, workers at the Staten Island warehouse voted to unionize with ALU. A year later, they remain the first warehouse to do so in the country. Amazon challenged the results, but the NLRB upheld the vote this January.
Asked about the trend of grassroots unions, such as ALU and Starbucks Workers United, Smalls said, “I encourage the workers to make the decision that’s best for them. If that is forming an independent union, so be it. But if it needs to be done by an established union, because they need the resources right away, I’m all for that as well.”
When speaking to workers and young people, Smalls is conscious of many Americans’ ignorance about labor history and unions. After all, only 11.3% of American workers are unionized, and America’s schools rarely teach much labor history.
In response to an audience member asking about how to talk to their small, understaffed workplace about unionizing, Smalls said: “Don’t talk to them about unions, because no one will know what the hell you’re talking about.”
Instead, Smalls advised, the worker should befriend his coworkers, learning about their lives. “Meet them there, befriend them, and then you trickle in that organizing and then, hopefully, you’ll have that trust to have a better conversation about it.”
Hours later, Smalls made an appearance in Windsor at a protest organized by North Bay Jobs with Justice as part of its campaign to win additional hazard pay and protections for farm workers.
“We stand in solidarity and we stand behind you 100%,” Smalls told the crowd. “As an Amazon worker, especially during COVID, we went through the same horrendous conditions—working long hours and not being paid hazard pay.”