Amazon Labor Union president tells Senate that workers’ rights aren’t a ‘Democrat or Republican’ issue
Back in February, Amazon tried to arrest labor organizer Christian Smalls for bringing food to warehouse employees during a union drive. One unfathomably monumental labor victory later, and today, the New Yorker is speaking before the Senate and visiting President Joe Biden at the White House.
Smalls, the Amazon Labor Union president who led the JFK8 warehouse’s historic union win, testified today in a hearing for the Senate Committee on the Budget. Chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the hearing posed the question of whether tax dollars should support companies that violate labor laws. Representatives from other groups like Good Jobs First, the Teamsters and the Heritage Foundation joined the hearing as well.
“The types of things Amazon is doing… Breaking the law, intimidation… These are real things that traumatize workers in this country,” Smalls said in his opening statement. “We want to feel that we have protections. We want to feel that the government is allowing us to use our constitutional rights to organize.”
Across the country, Amazon workers have accused the company of trying to quash labor organizing. Last year, Amazonians United co-founder Jonathan Bailey filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), stating that the company violated labor laws by retaliating against him for organizing. He said he was detained and interrogated by a manager for 90 minutes after organizing a walkout. The NLRB found merit to these allegations and filed a federal complaint against Amazon. The company settled, and as part of the settlement agreement, was required to remind employees via emails and on physical bulletin boards that they have the right to organize.
Bailey’s complaint to the NLRB was one of 37 against Amazon between February 2020 and March 2021, according to NBC News. But just months after this settlement, Amazon was found to have unlawfully prevented a Staten Island employee from distributing pro-union literature in the break room. Amazon filings with the Department of Labor revealed that the company spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants last year alone.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) defended Amazon, accusing Senator Sanders of unfairly targeting the company.
“You’re singling out a single company because of your political agenda to socialize this country,” Senator Graham said. “Every time I turn around, you’re having a hearing about [how] anybody who makes money is bad.”
Graham outlined that the NLRB has a process in place for workers to file complaints if they feel they are being treated unfairly, saying that he disagreed with a Senate hearing taking place at all.
“You can have oversight hearings all you like, but you’ve determined Amazon is a piece of crap company. That’s your political bias,” Graham told Sanders. “[Amazon is] subject to laws in the United States, they shouldn’t be subjected to this.”
In response, Smalls directed his opening statement to Senator Graham.
“I think that it’s in your best interest to realize that it’s not a left or right thing. It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. It’s a workers’ issue,” Small told the Senator. “We are the ones that are suffering in the corporations that you’re talking about, […] in the warehouses that you’re talking about. So that’s the reason why I think I was invited today speak on that behalf, and you should listen, because we do represent your constituents as well.”
He continued, “The people are the ones that make these corporations go, it’s not the other way around.”
At Senator Sanders’ urging, Smalls explained the working conditions of the now-unionizing fulfillment center where he used to work. He said that workers commuted from all boroughs of New York, as well as parts of New Jersey, which meant that they would commute for about two and a half hours each way, work a 10- to 12-hour shift, and receive minimal break time. He testified that hundreds of union busters came in from across the country, as well as from overseas. These representatives would host “captive audience” anti-union meetings every 20 minutes with groups of 50 to 60 workers. Smalls said that these captive audience presentations happened four times per week.
“Imagine being a new hire at Amazon. Your second day, you don’t even know your job assignment, and the first thing they do is march you into an anti-union propaganda class,” Smalls said. He added that the facility was plastered with anti-union signs, telling workers to vote no to unionization and emphasizing that unions require a dues expense on the workers’ part.
The hearing also addressed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which recently passed in the House. Currently, in twenty-seven “right-to-work” states, employees cannot be forced to join a union or pay dues, but if the PRO Act passed, it would override “right-to-work” laws. Union organizers believe, though, that “right-to-work” laws exist to discourage unionization, since it’s already federally illegal to force someone to join a union. If the PRO Act passes in the Senate (which isn’t expected, since Democrats don’t have enough seats to overcome the filibuster), it would be one of the biggest reforms of labor legislation since the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which protects the rights of employees to organize.
After the hearing, Smalls and a number of other labor organizers visited President Biden at the White House.
“Just met the President lol he said I got him in trouble,” Smalls tweeted, likely referring to the backlash Biden experienced after expressing support for the Amazon union. “Gooooooooooood.”
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