Derrick Palmer & Christian Smalls

#blackhistoryProfilesJanuary 23, 2023

Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer led a worker revolution at Amazon and ignited a nationwide wave of new organizing despite Amazon’s $4 million investment in union-busting tactics and attempts to stall their progress. 

Born and raised in New Jersey, both Smalls and Palmer began working for Amazon in 2015. By the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Smalls and Palmer were colleagues at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island where they quickly became best friends. 

During their daily carpool into the warehouse, they regularly discussed the systemic issues plaguing the retail giant. “Every day I noticed somebody in my department was becoming ill, whether it was dizziness, fatigue or vomiting. We didn’t have any PPE. We didn’t have any cleaning supplies. We didn’t have any social distancing. Amazon wasn’t really enforcing any guidelines,” said Smalls in an interview

Smalls was eventually exposed to COVID-19 at the warehouse after Amazon allowed a symptomatic colleague to return to work without a negative COVID test. Management failed to notify employees of their exposure, and in response, Smalls organized a walkout to protest the lack of safety protocols. He was fired the same day for that effort and a racist smear campaign ensued from the highest levels of Amazon’s leadership calling Smalls “not smart, or articulate.” 

As the second largest employer in the U.S., Amazon reportedly has a 150 percent turnover rate and paid close to $100 million in violations of federal labor, discrimination and safety laws.

Following Smalls’ firing, he and Palmer created The Congress of Essential Workers and spent the next year organizing to successfully unionize 8,300 warehouse workers into the Amazon Labor Union. 

Not only did Smalls and Palmer build one of the largest displays of worker power in the U.S. in recent decades, they also built both institutional and political power, helping other Amazon warehouses unionize and working at the legislative level to ensure worker protections for their communities. 

In 2022, just months after officially being recognized as a union, the Amazon Labor Union helped author and pass the New York state Warehouse Worker Protection Act that provides protections for warehouse workers against undisclosed or unlawful work speed quotas. The work of Smalls and Palmer created historic opportunities for workers to organize and demand Amazon improve working conditions for themselves and for generations of workers to come. 


Related Topic