Chris Smalls, the man who planted the first union at Amazon

Always be wary of appearances. When Christian Smalls tumbles at the wheel of his huge black SUV, this 33-year-old African-American seems straight out of a hip-hop clip. Bandana on his head, big sunglasses, elaborate beard, gold chains, jogging and dark sneakers… nothing is left to chance. Even less his T-shirt which displays three raised fists emerging from a cardboard box and the acronym ALU, for Amazon Labor Union, an independent union created a year ago by the one everyone calls “Chris”. He is the president. “Interim”, he specifies.

1er April, Chris Smalls showed the same look, but dressed all in red. A photo shows him uncorking a bottle of champagne, in front of his jubilant comrades. The ALU had just succeeded in the impossible: setting up shop in one of Amazon’s warehouses, JFK8 in Staten Island, New York, a majority of employees having voted “yes” to be represented by the organization. A first in the history of the country’s second largest employer, known for fiercely fighting any attempt to unionize.

“I saw people arriving every day with the symptoms of Covid-19. At the time, we had nothing to protect us. I thought it was very unfair and decided to act. » Chris Smalls, trade unionist

The adventure begins in the spring of 2020. At that time, Chris Smalls was a manager at Amazon. The young man, raised in New Jersey by a single mother, drops rap, where he was trying to break through, to support his two children. In 2015, after having chained odd jobs, the father of the family was hired by the e-commerce giant, near Newark, where he lives.

He rose through the ranks and arrived in 2018 at the JFK8 distribution center in Staten Island. There he meets Derrick Palmer, who will become his accomplice in the fight. “Chris is a very charismatic person, who doesn’t care about other people’s opinions, he will always be himself and that’s something I admire about him,” assures the vice-president of the ALU.

When the Covid-19 hit New York in March 2020, Amazon employees were among those “front line” workers, those who continued to pack the millions of packages for consumers confined to their homes. At the JFK8 warehouse, the situation deteriorates rapidly. “I saw people arriving every day with the symptoms of the disease, recalls Chris Smalls. At the time, we had nothing to protect us. I thought it was very unfair and decided to act. »

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