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Christian Smalls

Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, testifies during the Senate Budget Committee hearing titled "Should Taxpayer Dollars Go to Companies that Violate Labor Laws?" in Dirksen Building on Thursday, May 5, 2022. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

'The System Is Broken,' Amazon Union Leader Tells Congress. 'That's a Fact'

"The people are the ones who make these companies operate," said Christian Smalls, who led Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island to vote overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing last month.

Julia Conley

Wearing a jacket that read "Eat the Rich" across the back, Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls on Thursday told a Senate committee that the systems meant to protect workers' rights, particularly at large corporations, are "broken" and called on lawmakers to take action to protect people who want to join unions and who demand fair treatment at work.

"No government—not the federal government, not the state government and not the city government—should be handing out corporate welfare to union busters and labor law violators."

Smalls testified before the Senate Budget Committee at a hearing titled "Should Taxpayer Dollars Go to Companies That Violate Labor Laws?" in which his former employer, Amazon.com, was the main focus.

Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) led the hearing, noting that Amazon is one of "hundreds of corporations in America that receive federal contracts, huge subsidies, special tax breaks, and all kinds of corporate welfare despite the fact that these same companies have engaged in widespread illegal behavior—including massive violations of labor laws."

While working to weaken the labor movement within its ranks last year, Amazon enjoyed more than $600 million in state and local government tax breaks. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleged earlier this year that the company violated federal labor laws by intimidating and threatening employees who tried to unionize. The board also found last year that Amazon violated labor laws during a unionization drive at a Bessemer, Alabama warehouse.

"No government—not the federal government, not the state government, and not the city government—should be handing out corporate welfare to union busters and labor law violators," said Sanders.

Smalls was there to give a firsthand account of Amazon's abuses two years after being fired from his job at a warehouse in New York City where he had organized his coworkers to protest what they called insufficient Covid-19 mitigation practices.

The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) leader led workers at the JFK8 fulfillment center on Staten Island to vote overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing last month—but he didn't do so without facing aggressive anti-union tactics from the company, which spent $4.3 million last year on union-busting consultants and lawyers.

Smalls described being arrested for allegedly trespassing on company property in February when he delivered food to warehouse workers as part of the ALU's union drive, and noted that he and other employees have been fired after organizing.

"They break the law, they get away with it. We filed over 40 [unfair labor practice complaints] in 11 months," he said, noting that the NLRB confirmed Amazon broke the law when it fired Staten Island warehouse worker Daequen Smith.

"He's still out of a job," said Smalls. "He's living in a shelter right now, we raised money through GoFundMe. These are just a few examples including myself, who's been out of a job for two years."

Amazon officials know, he said, that their illegal anti-union activities "won't be resolved during the election campaigns."

"The system is broken," Smalls told Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at one point during the hearing, emphasizing, "That's a fact" when the right-wing lawmaker pushed back.

Graham called into question Sanders' decision to hold the hearing at all, claiming it was "dangerous" and "radical" to allow former workers and labor experts to "make accusations" about Amazon in order to hold the corporation accountable.

"That's literally the point of congressional hearings," tweeted Oliver Willis of The American Independent.

Smalls responded to Graham's objections in his remarks:

It sounds like you were talking about more of the companies and the businesses in your speech, but you forgot that the people are the ones who make these companies operate, 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.

I'm here to represent the workers who make these companies go and I think it's in your best interest to realize that it's not a left or right thing... It's a workers thing, it's a workers issue and we're the ones that are suffering in the corporations that you're talking about... And you should listen because we do represent your constituents as well.

Smalls garnered praise from progressives for his rebuke of the high-ranking Republican senator.

"Seeing Christian Smalls say this to Lindsey Graham's face, in the halls of power on Capitol Hill, is incredible," said journalist and activist Morgan Artyukhina. "Literally speaking truth to power!"


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