By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Back in 2009, I was hired to work at a big box retail store. I won’t name the store, but their target is targeting consumers by offering high-quality merchandise at a price target that other retailers cannot target. I mean match.
I was hired to work in the stockroom at this store, but before I could begin, I had to go through training. There were about 15 of us in the training room, and the instructor would play various videotapes, none of which had anything to do with how to perform our actual jobs.
Some of the videos were safety-related. I remember one about how you shouldn’t use a bungee cord to hold a bunch of shopping carts together because it could fly back and knock your eye out. The video concluded with an interview with the guy who inspired the policy, rocking a pretty cool eyepatch and hopefully living a wonderful life off of his massive settlement.
All of the videos referred to the employees of the business as a “family.” If any young people are reading this column, I’d like to give you a piece of valuable advice: if a business refers to its employees as “family,” the family they’re referring to is the Manson family, in that they’re going to demand unwavering loyalty and probably ask you to do things that are illegal.
Of all the videos that we watched, however, my favorite one was about unions. The video featured various actors — presumably union actors — pretending to be employees of the store and discussing the pros and cons of unionization.
I’m kidding of course; they didn’t mention any pros. To hear them tell it, unions are greedy businesses that exist only to siphon money from your paycheck in the form of “dues” and “fees.” They take away the flexibility that allows businesses to best serve their customers. Sure, they were useful once, back when Dickensian street urchins were employed as chimney sweeps, but everything good that a union can do has already been made a law.
You’re going to think I’m joking, but this video literally contained a scene of a blasted CGI wasteland with bent figures dressed in rags huddling around each other for warmth. Presumably this apocalyptic vision was the inevitable result of joining a union. When the video came to a close, I was half expecting to see a directing credit for Leni Riefenstahl.
Shortly after my training concluded I arrived for my first day on the job. It was so terrible that I quit after two hours. To put things in perspective, I once had a job working nights scraping paint and congealed goo off of tanks of dangerous chemicals, and I didn’t quit that one. Of course, the money was better.
On my way out, I told the lady at the employee check-in desk that I was leaving.
“Ok,” she said blandly.
“I’m not coming back.”
“Ok,” she said in the same tone of voice, and it occurred to me that she probably had this same exchange several times per week.
It’s no surprise that this corporation (and so many others) are anti-union; unions tend to stand in the way of the abhorrent business practices that so many modern corporations have embraced.
Businesses complain that unions prevent them from being “flexible.” That translates to “if someone quits, we can’t make you do their job and your job for the same pay.” They say that unions cause price increases. Translation: “We’ll have to pay you what you’re worth.” They say that unions may cause scheduling difficulties. Translation: “Now we can’t schedule you for exactly 39 hours per week to prevent you from getting benefits.”
I’m not going to say that it’s impossible for unions to become bloated and corrupt; there are plenty of examples in history. However, unions serve as a necessary form of checks and balances when corporations begin taking advantage of and abusing their workers.
It is for this reason that I was very happy to learn about Chris Smalls.
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Smalls organized a walkout to protest the conditions at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse where he worked. He was fired later that day.
Amazon has been fighting against unions since 2001, when they fired 850 Seattle employees following a unionization drive. Over the years, the stories that have come out of Amazon warehouses would shock Upton Sinclair.
There have been reports of warehouses reaching 114 F, requiring ambulances to be posted outside to treat the workers that pass out from the heat. There are reports of Amazon delivery drivers being forced to urinate in bottles because they can’t meet their metrics if they stop to use the bathroom. One study found that from 2018-2020, injury rates at Amazon warehouses were double the rates of non-Amazon warehouses.
And then, of course, there was the horrible tragedy that occurred at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois. Employees were asked to continue working during tornado conditions, and company policy prevented them from having their cell phones on them, meaning they couldn’t hear any emergency weather alerts. Six people were killed when a tornado hit the warehouse.
But back to Chris Smalls. Amazon officially fired Smalls for violating quarantine and safety measures, but if you believe that’s the real reason, I have a bridge to sell you.
Just a few days after Smalls’ walkout that resulted in his firing, he became aware of a leaked memo from one of Amazon’s top attorneys. The memo downplayed the threat of Smalls successfully unionizing an Amazon warehouse, describing him as “not smart, or articulate.”
As you might imagine, that statement stuck in Smalls’ craw. It also galvanized him into action, and despite the fact that he had no union experience, he began a grassroots movement using GoFundMe and, just a week or so ago, formed the Amazon Labor Union, successfully unionizing the very first Amazon warehouse. He’s responsible for one of the single most successful union drives in modern history.
While celebrating the historic victory outside of the National Labor Relations Board offices in Brooklyn, Smalls uttered the greatest quote of the year thus far:
“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space,” he said. “Because when he was up there, we was signing people up.”
It’s hard to imagine a greater David and Goliath story than a Staten Island warehouse worker triumphing over one of the wealthiest men in the world. The story should also serve as a warning to other billionaires who value corporate profits over human lives: there are only so many billionaires out there, but there are a whole lot of Chris Smalls.