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Chris Small speaks at 2013 Union Days

Amazon Labor Organizers Encourage Solidarity

“No matter what your background is, your political views, where you come from, at the end of the day, there is only one enemy – that is the one percent, the corporation, the boss. We can build off that commonality,” Chris Smalls told the hundreds of people who packed Ives Hall 305 during the ILR Worker Institute’s Union Days event.

Founder and president of Amazon Labor Union, Smalls, and Derrick Palmer, the union’s vice president, gave the Union Days Labor Leaders in Residence Keynote, “Taking on a Giant: The Path to Unionizing the First Amazon Warehouse in America,” on April 17.

Smalls, who said he never expected to become an organizer, gained international recognition after organizing Amazon in 2020. Amazon’s inaction and disregard for its workers during the pandemic, Smalls and Palmer said, motivated them to act.

They led an 8,000-employee facility owned by the nation’s second-biggest employer, Amazon, to unionization.

Amazon spent more than $4 million attempting to keep a union out of its JFK8 warehouse but lost when 2,654 workers voted “yes” for representation by the Amazon Labor Union and 2,131 voted “no.” It was a shocking union win that many experts at the ILR School helped explain to members of the media and the public.

Palmer emphasized the grassroots nature of the Amazon organizing work. “It was not money, not support of other established unions that have been around for hundreds of years, not support of politicians or celebrities; it was workers having several conversations for over 300 days inside and outside of work, building relationships and trust.”

Palmer critiqued the growth of Amazon, which he said has come at the expense of workers' well-being. He said the luxury of one-click buying and same-day same shipping comes with a cost.

Smalls and Palmer, who discussed their connections with ILR students in this story, reiterated the importance of solidarity and organizing. They acknowledged that although the process was difficult with days of little progress and strong opposition, it was worth it to form the Amazon Labor Union.

Palmer and Smalls said they were able to organize their workplace by understanding their value and rights as essential workers who should be able to work with dignity and not put their lives on the line for their jobs.

The two ended the talk by reminding the audience of the continuing nature of their work. Although Amazon workers successfully formed a union, much work remains. “We would love for this fight to be over, but it is never over,” Smalls said.

Union Days is held annually at the ILR School to celebrate the labor movement and to facilitate discussion around labor and unionization.

ILR’s Worker Institute sponsors Union Days. Co-sponsors in 2023 included the People’s Organizing Collective, Graduate Labor Organization, ILR Graduate Student Association, ILR Office of Career Services, Cornell Law School, Cornell Center for the Study of Inequality, Cornell Law & Society minor, Cornell Farmworker Program and the Cornell chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Videos of Union Days 2023 events include:

Southern Workers Organizing

A Founder’s Account of the 9 to 5 Movement

Unionizing on University Campuses