Christian Smalls, the leader of the first union to successfully organize at Amazon in the United States, had a message for those in power on Thursday, and he delivered some of it with the writing on his jacket and more with his testimony in front of the Senate Budget Committee.
Smalls is head of the Amazon Labor Union, which was victorious last month at a Staten Island, N.Y., Amazon warehouse facility. He was invited by Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Budget Committee, to testify about union busting tactics and what workers allegedly faced during their unionization efforts at the tech giant.
Wearing a red, yellow and black jacket with “Eat the Rich” printed on the front and back, Smalls peered from under his New York Yankees baseball hat as he told members of the committee what tactics Amazon employed.
“They come into the facility. They isolate workers every single day,” Smalls said. “They question them, pretty much gaslighting them, acting like they’re working to improve the conditions, but really they are just polling to see who’s pro-union and who’s not. They report that information back to management. They have captive audiences every single day.”
Smalls was fired by Amazon in 2020 for leading a worker walkout after he wanted the company to do more to protect warehouse workers in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The corporations have the control,” he said Thursday. “They break the law, they get away with it. They know that breaking the law during the election campaigns won’t be resolved during the election campaigns. So they purposely continue to break the law.”
Smalls was in Washington, D.C., to push for Senate passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a proposal to overhaul labor law to make it easier for workers to form unions.
In his own comments, Sanders took issue with Amazon’s high warehouse worker turnover and injury rates, its efforts to defeat union organizing and billionaire founder Jeff Bezos.
“Given all your wealth, how much do you need?” Sanders asked of Bezos, who was not present. “Why are you doing everything in your power, including breaking the law, to deny Amazon workers the right to join a union so that they can negotiate for better wages, better working conditions and better benefits? How much do you need?”
Smalls directed some pointed words at Sen. Lindsey Graham in his opening remarks. Graham is the ranking Republican member on the Budget Committee.
“You forgot that the people are the ones who make these companies operate,” Smalls said. “And if we’re not protected and if the process for when we hold these companies accountable is not working for us, then … that’s the reason why we’re here today.”
Smalls told Graham it’s not a left or right or Democrat or Republican thing. “It’s a workers thing,” he said.
At The White House, Smalls met with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the Oval Office along with other pro-union representatives.
Biden tweeted that Smalls and others are “inspiring a movement of workers across the country.” Smalls tweeted back that the president said Smalls “got him in trouble.” He may have been referring to the president’s comments in front of union leaders after the victory against Amazon, in which Biden said, “Amazon, here we come.”