Christian Smalls, founder of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), speaks during a Senate Budget Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, May 5, 2022. The hearing is titled “Should Taxpayer Dollars Go to Companies that Violate Labor Laws?”
Eric Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Chris Smalls, a former Amazon worker and leader of an upstart labor union, challenged lawmakers on the tech behemoth’s labor record at a Senate hearing on Thursday.
Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders called the hearing as part of his push for the White House to stop offering federal contracts to companies such as Amazon that are accused of unfair labor practices. Sanders called out Amazon founder and executive chair Jeff Bezos, who was invited to the hearing but did not attend, in his opening remarks for discouraging unionization at the company.
Smalls is president of the Amazon Labor Union, a grassroots organization led by current and former company employees. Last month, workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island voted in support of the company’s first U.S. union, despite a high-level opposition campaign by Amazon. The ALU was unable to replicate its success earlier this week, however, when workers at a second Staten Island warehouse rejected unionization.
Smalls said Amazon violates labor laws “with impunity” and, as a result, should be barred from being awarded government contracts.
“We cannot allow Amazon or any other employer to receive taxpayer money if they engage in illegal union-busting behavior and deny workers’ rights,” Smalls said in his testimony. “We cannot provide federal contracts to these employers. We cannot allow them to receive taxpayer subsidies from our state and local governments.”
Representatives from Amazon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Senate Budget Committee ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the hearing topic “radical” and criticized Sanders for singling out Amazon.
“This is an effort to get an outcome you want, using the United States Senate as your vehicle,” Graham said. “This is very dangerous. You can have oversight hearings all you like, but you’ve determined Amazon is a piece of crap company. That’s your political bias.”
Smalls fired back at Graham, saying, “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 that we’re not protected.”
Later on, Graham asked Smalls if he has filed a complaint against Amazon. Smalls was fired by Amazon in 2020 after the company claimed he violated social distancing rules. Smalls argued he was fired in retaliation for staging a protest in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic to call for stronger safety measures. His firing prompted widespread outrage, including a complaint from New York Attorney General Letitia James, which sought to force Amazon to rehire Smalls.
Smalls said the process for holding companies accountable “isn’t working,” and Graham replied that that was Smalls’ opinion.
“That’s a fact,” Smalls retorted.
At the hearing, Smalls was joined by Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien, among other panelists. The Teamsters last year announced a renewed push to organize Amazon facilities and it has taken aim at the company’s expansion efforts across the country.
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh met with Smalls and other organizers, including a group seeking to represent Starbucks workers, at the White House Thursday afternoon.
Biden “stopped by the discussion and thanked the worker organizers for their leadership in organizing unions, the inspiration they offer to workers across the country who may want to organize, and their contributions to the worker organizing momentum that is growing across the country,” according to a White House readout of the meeting. Organizers described why they and their coworkers organized unions in their workplaces, and discussed the importance of fair pay, paid leave and other benefits, the readout stated.