Sept. 2022 Advocate: AFT members meet with Amazon Union president Chris Smalls

Labor Movement Organizing

AFT members show solidarity at labor convention meeting featuring Amazon Union president Chris Smalls

by Evan Kaiser, AFT 1493 CSM Co-Executive Committee Rep.

AFT members with Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls (back row, center) at California Labor Federation Biennial Convention on July 25th, 2022

The energy in the conference room of the California Labor Federation Biennial Convention was electric as Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls approached the podium. To my left, fast food workers and members of the Fight for Fifteen campaign raised their voices in a chorus of “Sí, se puede,” echoing the motto of the United Farm Workers. In front of me, tables of Teamsters, CFT delegates, and the newly created Starbucks Workers Union burst into a raucous applause.

Members of the Fight for Fifteen campaign gathered at the California Labor Federation Convention

Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls at podium

Smalls began his remarks by asking for a brief moment of silence to recognize those lost to COVID and to acknowledge the impact of pervasive violence we have witnessed in the U.S. and abroad. In this poignant space that seemed to last for minutes rather than seconds, I thought about my colleagues struggling to protect their young children from COVID. My mind then jumped to the children killed in Uvalde, Texas and the missing systems of care and support that failed to protect all involved. I was reminded of my relative privilege as a “knowledge worker” brushing up against an ever elusive middle-class standard of living. And then, Smalls jolted us out of that emotional place, as we offered to each other what was both a solution and a promise: “I got your back!”

Workers across industries are likely familiar with Chris Smalls’s story and his rise to the forefront of the current U.S. labor movement. After being fired from Amazon, he successfully used grassroots organizing tactics to fight union-busting and help establish Amazon’s first labor union. Although intent on improving the grueling and substandard conditions in Amazon procurement facilities, his calls for worker solidarity resonate far beyond the (very high) walls of that one company. Indeed, worker solidarity and proactive union activity may be the only antidote to the power concentrated in corporate bosses’ billions of dollars in assets. As Smalls recounted, the leaders of big corporations like FedEx and Amazon would rather roll out thousands of pro-company, anti-union marketing jobs targeted at teenagers than invest that same money into folks who already work in the logistics and service industries. Perhaps this is because they know, as we do, that workers already wield immense power – if we organize.

Other panelists spoke of their own unionization efforts, occasionally asking Smalls for commentary or advice. Manuel Ramos of the Mobile Workers Alliance explained the financial toll of maintaining his own vehicle as a misclassified Independent Contractor for Amazon who was also subject to unfair deactivation. Ramos was followed by SF Labor Council Executive Director Kim Tavaglione, CFT organizers Sandra Weiss and Arden Stern, and Fight For Fifteen organizer Crystal Orozco, who asked Smalls for advice on where we go from here. Besides making the labor movement cool (hot labor summer, anyone?) and the importance of teaching real history, much of which is labor history, Smalls stressed building solidarity across perceived divides and activating every member to do the work.

From left to right, CFT organizers Arden Stern and Sandra Weiss, and Fight For Fifteen organizer Crystal Orozco, spoke on the panel at the California Labor Federation Convention

Both of these messages are key to our success as AFT – and when I say “our,” I don’t mean the Executive Committee. I mean each one of our thousands of members who are diverse in terms of economic status, race/ethnicity, gender, political orientation, and so on, but who are united in the desire to create a dignified workplace that pays enough to cover our personal expenses and supports our professional aspirations to do our best by our students. There are so many ways to move the needle towards this goal, such as building 1-1 connections with your department colleagues (especially your part-time faculty colleagues!), volunteering to be a Contract Action Team “point person,” or participating in union actions like “red for ed” days or speaking publicly at Board of Trustees meetings. This spirit of solidarity that we cultivate will extend well beyond our three campuses; it is what pushed CFT to the brink of victory in a campaign to secure $200 million for part-time faculty healthcare, to take one recent example. So this fall, let’s all take action to show up for our colleagues – or, as Chris Smalls said, show them that “I’ve got your back!”