How Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer Beat Amazon
The company’s crackdown on a worker protest in New York backfired and led to a historic labor victory.
Derrick Palmer, in pink, and Christian Smalls, right, celebrated after workers voted to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island. The two friends spearheaded the push for the union.Credit…DeSean McClinton-Holland for The New York Times
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Jodi Kantor and
In the first dark days of the pandemic, as an Amazon worker named Christian Smalls planned a small, panicked walkout over safety conditions at the retailer’s only fulfillment center in New York City, the company quietly mobilized.
Amazon formed a reaction team involving 10 departments, including its Global Intelligence Program, a security group staffed by many military veterans. The company named an “incident commander” and relied on a “Protest Response Playbook” and “Labor Activity Playbook” to ward off “business disruptions,” according to newly released court documents.
In the end, there were more executives — including 11 vice presidents — who were alerted about the protest than workers who attended it. Amazon’s chief counsel, describing Mr. Smalls as “not smart, or articulate,” in an email mistakenly sent to more than 1,000 people, recommended making him “the face” of efforts to organize workers. The company fired Mr. Smalls, saying he had violated quarantine rules by attending the walkout.
In dismissing and smearing him, the company relied on the hardball tactics that had driven its dominance of the market. But on Friday, he won the first successful unionization effort at any Amazon warehouse in the United States, one of the most significant labor victories in a generation. The company’s response to his tiny initial protest may haunt it for years to come.
Mr. Smalls and his best friend from the warehouse, Derrick Palmer, had set their sights on unionizing after he was forced out. Along with a growing band of colleagues — and no affiliation with a national labor organization — the two men spent the past 11 months going up against Amazon, whose 1.1 million workers in the United States make it the country’s second-largest private employer.
At the bus stop outside the warehouse, a site on Staten Island known as JFK8, they built bonfires to warm colleagues waiting before dawn to go home. They made TikTok videos to reach workers across the city. Mr. Palmer brought homemade baked ziti to the site; others toted empanadas and West African rice dishes to appeal to immigrant workers. They set up signs saying “Free Weed and Food.”
The union spent $120,000 overall, raised through GoFundMe, according to Mr. Smalls. “We started this with nothing, with two tables, two chairs and a tent,” he recalled. Amazon spent more than $4.3 million just on anti-union consultants nationwide last year, according to federal filings.
The unionization vote reflects an era of rising worker power. In recent months, a string of Starbucks stores have voted to organize as well. But JFK8, with 8,000 workers, is one of Amazon’s signature warehouses, its most important pipeline to its most important market.
Amazon has fought unionization for years, considering it a dire threat to its business model. Its ability to speed packages to consumers is built on a vast chain of manual labor that is monitored down to the second. No one knows what will happen if the newly organized workers try to change that model or disrupt operations — or if their union is replicated among the more than 1,000 Amazon fulfillment centers and other facilities across the country.
For all their David-versus-Goliath disadvantages, the Staten Island organizers had the cultural moment on their side. They were buoyed by a tightened labor market, a reckoning over what employers owe their workers and a National Labor Relations Board emboldened under President Biden, which made a key decision in their favor. The homegrown, low-budget push by their independent Amazon Labor Union outperformed traditional labor organizers who failed at unionizing Amazon from the outside, most recently in Bessemer, Ala.
“I think it’s going to shake up the labor movement and flip the orthodoxy on its head,” said Justine Medina, a box packer and union organizer at JFK8 who had waited with an exuberant crowd in Brooklyn to hear the vote results.
The future of American unionizing efforts “can’t be about people coming in from the outside with an organizing plan that people have to follow,” said Sara Nelson, head of the flight attendants’ union, in an interview. “It has to come from within the workplace.”
Now, both the nascent JFK8 union and Amazon face pressing questions. The union, with no traditional infrastructure, experience or leadership, is likely to face a legal battle over the vote and challenging contract negotiations. The company, which did not respond to a request for comment for this article, will have to decide whether to reconsider some of its tactics and address the underlying labor dissatisfaction that handed it such a sweeping defeat.
“Amazon wanted to make me the face of the whole unionizing efforts against them,” Mr. Smalls wrote in a tweet on Friday, appearing undaunted by the task ahead. “Welp there you go!”
When Amazon opened the sprawling JFK8 site in 2018, the company was both drawn to and wary of New York, America’s most important consumer market. The established Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union announced a bold goal: to turn JFK8 into the first organized Amazon warehouse in the country.
Soon Amazon withdrew from its highly touted plan to open a second headquarters in the city, as a backlash grew over public subsidies it would receive and its history of opposing unions. But the talk of organizing JFK8 went nowhere. In labor circles, many believed that Amazon’s turnover was too high, and its tactics too combative, for a union to succeed.
When the first coronavirus cases were confirmed at JFK8 in March 2020, Mr. Palmer and Mr. Smalls confronted managers with safety concerns. Employees were increasingly worried about rising infection rates and felt that Amazon was not notifying them about cases in a timely manner, managers documented in newly released court records.
But Amazon refused to pause operations, saying it had taken “extreme measures” to keep workers safe. The pandemic had turned JFK8 into a lifeline for the city, where 24/7 shifts and a fleet of trucks delivered supplies as it went into lockdown.
As Amazon moved to fire Mr. Smalls that March, two human resource employees at JFK8 doubted the wisdom of his dismissal. “Come on,” one messaged. Mr. Smalls was outside, peaceful and social-distancing, she wrote. His firing, she predicted, would be “perceived as retaliation.” But the termination proceeded.
After the firing, the chief counsel’s smear against Mr. Smalls — a full apology came only later — and the dismissal of another protester, the two friends resolved to take action. Mr. Smalls was outspoken, Mr. Palmer deliberate. They were both Black men from New Jersey and the same age (31 then, 33 now). Both had dropped out of community college, prided themselves on high scores on Amazon’s performance metrics and once hoped to rise within the company.
Now they made new plans. Mr. Palmer would keep working at JFK8, the better to change it from inside.
In early 2021, they took a road trip to another Amazon warehouse. When workers held a union drive in Bessemer, Ala., Mr. Palmer and Mr. Smalls wanted to witness it. But they found organizers from the retail union — the one that had previously declared an interest in JFK8 — less than welcoming to them and thought the professionals seemed like outsiders who had descended on the community.
By April, workers in Bessemer had rejected the union by more than a 2-to-1 margin. Mr. Palmer and Mr. Smalls declared their intention to organize JFK8, but few took them seriously. Why should they win when better-funded, more experienced operatives had been beaten?
As they set about their first task — gathering thousands of worker signatures to trigger a unionization vote — cracks in Amazon’s employment model were evident.
JFK8 had offered jobs to workers laid off by other industries during the pandemic. But a New York Times investigation last June revealed that the warehouse was burning through employees, firing others because of communication and technology errors and mistakenly depriving workers of benefits.
Black associates at JFK8 were almost 50 percent more likely to be fired than their white peers, according to an internal document. Even before the pandemic upended work, Amazon warehouses had an astonishing annual turnover rate of 150 percent.
As Mr. Palmer and Mr. Smalls approached workers at the bus stop, Amazon’s tone toward its employees kept shifting. Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder, was handing over the role of chief executive to Andy Jassy, and the company raised wages and added the goal of being “Earth’s best employer” to its guiding principles. It pledged to listen to complaints and improve working conditions.
At other times, it was contentious. In a widely publicized Twitter exchange about the Bessemer organizing, Amazon sounded so dismissive about workers who could not take bathroom breaks and had to urinate in bottles that it had to apologize.
In May at JFK8, an anti-union consultant called the mostly Black labor organizers “thugs,” according to a complaint filed against Amazon by the N.L.R.B. The retailer denied the episode.
And in November, the labor agency said Amazon had showed “flagrant disregard” for the law and threw out the results of the Bessemer warehouse vote, ordering another.
That fall, after months of gathering support, the New York union organizers delivered more than 2,000 signatures to the labor board, but they were rejected for not meeting the minimum required to hold an election. Mr. Smalls said Amazon had submitted payroll data to the board indicating that the company believed half the people who had signed cards no longer worked at the warehouse.
“After all those months of hard work, it seemed like the momentum was gone,” Mr. Palmer recalled in an interview. Between working his shifts and organizing at JFK8 on his time off, he had spent barely a day away from the warehouse for months. Some of the employees he approached were skeptical of unions or dues, or just grateful for Amazon’s health care and pay, which starts above $18 an hour at JFK8. Others seemed too exhausted and wary to even engage.
To press onward, the union leaders posted the TikTok videos, made outdoor s’mores and sang along to hip-hop and Marvin Gaye. When workers faced family crises, the budding union prayed. One fired employee became homeless, and the group set up a fund-raising campaign.
Their near-constant presence at the warehouse helped. “The more comfortable they get with us, that’s when they start opening up to us,” Mr. Palmer said of other workers.
Some union sympathizers took jobs at JFK8 specifically to help the organizing effort, according to Ms. Medina, who was among them.
Amazon countered with the full force of its anti-union apparatus. It monitored organizers’ social media, court filings show, pelted workers with text messages and blanketed the warehouse with signs saying “Vote NO” or claiming the union leaders were outsiders. The company often held more than 20 mandatory meetings with workers a day, The Times reported last month, in which managers and consultants cast doubt on the effort.
“The Amazon Labor Union has never negotiated a contract,” one presentation said. Dues would be expensive, it continued, and the union “has no experience managing this massive amount of money.”
Andro Perez, 35, works at a smaller Amazon warehouse near JFK8, where another union vote is scheduled this month. He’s leaning toward voting yes, he said, because Amazon’s mandatory meetings mostly criticized unions. He would rather his employer address the question: “What could you do better?”
The organizers at JFK8 fought back, filing dozens of complaints with the N.L.R.B. claiming that Amazon violated workers’ rights to organize. Amazon has denied their allegations, but the labor board found many to be credible and pursued them in administrative court.
By Christmas, the organizers scored a major legal win. Amazon agreed to a nationwide settlement, among the largest in the agency’s history, that said workers could stay in the buildings to organize when they were off the clock.
With that, the organizers moved their potlucks indoors, giving them more access and legitimacy. Mr. Smalls’s aunt provided home-cooked soul food: macaroni and cheese, candied yams, collard greens and baked chicken.
“What you do is you create a community that Amazon never really had for workers,” said Seth Goldstein, a lawyer who represented the organizers free of charge.
One day this February, Mr. Smalls was bringing lunch to the break room when Amazon called the police, saying he had trespassed. He and two current employees were arrested. The response may have backfired: The union’s videos of the episode on TikTok have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
Kathleen Lejuez, 41, employed by Amazon for nine years, said she was not a “union fan” but voted for the organizing effort to send a message to a company that she felt had lost its connection to workers. “The humanity at Amazon is gone,” she said in an interview.
In the weeks before the count, Amazon, which has consistently said its workers are best served by a direct relationship with the company, laid the groundwork for potential challenges to the election — arguing in legal filings that the labor board had abandoned “the neutrality of their office” in favor of the union.
On Friday morning inside the agency’s offices in Brooklyn, Mr. Smalls, in siren-red streetwear, sat next to Amazon’s lawyer to review each ballot. His knee jittered as each vote was presented.
The votes were tallied — 2,654 for the union, 2,131 against. With a comfortable margin secured, Mr. Palmer, Mr. Smalls and other representatives emerged into the spring light, screamed with joy and clasped one another in a tight circle.
A few miles away, at JFK8, workers were stealthily monitoring the results in between packing and stowing boxes. There was no formal announcement. Instead, a shout rose up from somewhere on the floor: “We did it! We won!”
Your pollen allergies are overwhelming? This might be why
Pollen has exploded to eye-watering levels this spring in some parts of the country after warm weather pushed plants out of their winter slumber much earlier than normal.
In Atlanta, the pollen count sky rocketed to “extremely high” in early March and stayed high through much of April, according to the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma physicians practice. Farther north in Washington, DC, allergy sufferers have been dreading the lime-green film of pollen covering that covers windshields and porches and piles up on streets and sidewalks.
But these aren’t isolated trends. As the planet warms, researchers say allergy season is starting earlier and lasting longer. And a study from the journal Nature published last year found that pollen count is projected to increase by 200% by the end of the century if planet-warming pollution continues to rise.
Climate Central, a nonprofit focused on climate news and research, recently analyzed how warmer temperatures have affected allergy season in 203 US cities since 1970.
It found that on average, the growing season – the period between the last freeze in spring to the first freeze of fall – is lasting 16 days longer in the Southeast, 15 days longer in the Northeast and 14 days longer in the South.
In the West, growing season is 27 days longer on average, Climate Central reported. Reno, Nevada, for example, has seen a shocking increase of 99 days.
And a longer growing season means a longer allergy season.
Because of climate change, we’re now seeing an earlier and longer growing season for plants, which of course make pollen, which is the enemy of many Americans that suffer from pollen allergies – and mold allergies as well,” Lauren Casey, a meteorologist with Climate Central, told CNN. “Pollen can also trigger an asthma attack, which of course is much more serious for people that suffer from asthma.”
When plants reproduce, typically during the spring, many release tiny pollen grains that are carried by wind. The pollen grains are small enough to be inhaled, and some people’s immune systems react very poorly to the miniscule particles.
More than 24 million people in the US have pollen-induced respiratory allergies like hay fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The center’s data shows that more than one in four adults suffered from seasonal allergies in 2021.
A longer and earlier start to pollen season could trigger a public health emergency, researchers say. As temperatures get warmer in the South and drought plagues the Southwest, pollen from plants like ragweed or poaceae – a plant that typically grows in grasslands or salt-marshes – is projected to be higher across those regions than in the North.
Wind-driven pollen, which plays an important role in plant fertilization, is closely tied to temperature and precipitation changes. So, as spring seasons get warmer earlier due to climate change, plants could pollinate much earlier and for a longer period of time than they currently do.
Mold allergens on the rise
Plant pollen isn’t the only trigger of seasonal allergies. Mold, a type of fungi that reproduces with tiny airborne spores, can also be allergenic for some people and can exacerbate seasonal allergies, according to the report.
While outdoor mold is not as well-studied as pollen, according to the report, one thing is clear: Warmer and wetter weather – conditions that many locations are seeing more of amid the climate crisis – is favorable for mold development.
The Facebook Papers may be the biggest crisis in the company’s history
Facebook has confronted whistleblowers, PR firestorms and Congressional inquiries in recent years. But now it faces a combination of all three at once in what could be the most intense and wide-ranging crisis in the company’s 17-year history.
On Friday, a consortium of 17 US news organizations began publishing a series of stories — collectively called “The Facebook Papers” — based on a trove of hundreds of internal company documents which were included in disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. The consortium, which includes CNN, reviewed the redacted versions received by Congress.
CNN’s coverage includes stories about how coordinated groups on Facebook (FB) sow discord and violence, including on January 6, as well as Facebook (FB)’s challenges moderating content in some non-English-speaking countries, and how human traffickers have used its platforms to exploit people.
The reports from CNN, and the other outlets that are part of the consortium, follow a month of intense scrutiny for the company. The Wall Street Journal previously published a series of stories based on tens of thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents leaked by Haugen. (The consortium’s work is based on many of the same documents.)
The publication of the Journal’s “Facebook Files,” which raised concerns about the impact of Instagram on teen girls, among other issues, prompted a Senate subcomittee hearing with Facebook head of global safety Antigone Davis. Haugen herself then testified before the Senate subcommittee, during which she said she believes that “Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.”
There’s currently no end in sight for Facebook’s troubles. Members of the subcommittee have called for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify. And on Friday, another former Facebook employee anonymously filed a complaint against the company to the SEC, with allegations similar to Haugen’s.
Facebook has dealt with scandals over its approach to data privacy, content moderation and competitors before. But the vast trove of documents, and the many stories surely still to come from it, touch on concerns and problems across seemingly every part of its business: its approach to combatting hate speech and misinformation, managing international growth, protecting younger users on its platform and even its ability to accurately measure the size of its massive audience.
All of this raises an uncomfortable question for the company: Is Facebook actually capable of managing the potential for real-world harms from its staggeringly large platforms, or has the social media giant become too big not to fail?
Facebook tries to turn the page
Facebook, for its part, has repeatedly tried to discredit Haugen, and said her testimony and reports on the documents mischaracterize its actions and efforts.
“At the heart of these stories is a premise which is false,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to CNN. “Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie.”
In a tweet thread last week, the company’s Vice President of Communications, John Pinette, called the Facebook Papers a “curated selection out of millions of documents at Facebook” which “can in no way be used to draw fair conclusions about us.” But even that response is telling –— if Facebook has more documents that would tell a fuller story, why not release them? (During her Senate testimony Facebook’s Davis said Facebook is “looking for ways to release more research.”)
Instead, Facebook is now reportedly planning to rebrand itself under a new name as early as this week, as the wave of critical coverage continues. (Facebook previously declined to comment on this report.) The move appears to be a clear attempt to turn the page, but a fresh coat of paint won’t fix the underlying issues outlined in the documents — only Facebook, or whatever it may soon be called, can do that.
Take the example of a report published by the Journal on September 16 that highlighted internal Facebook research about a violent Mexican drug cartel, known as Cartél Jalisco Nueva Generación. The cartel was said to be using the platform to post violent content and recruit new members using the acronym “CJNG,” even though it had been designated internally as one of the “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” whose content should be removed. Facebook told the Journal at the time that it was investing in artificial intelligence to bolster its enforcement against such groups.
Despite the Journal’s report last month, last week identified disturbing content linked to the group on Instagram, including photos of guns, and photo and video posts in which people appear to have been shot or beheaded. After asked Facebook about the posts, a spokesperson confirmed that multiple videos flagged were removed for violating the company’s policies, and at least one post had a warning added.
setting Boston Bruins blow 3-1 series lead, eliminated by Florida Panthers from NHL playoffs
The President’s Trophy curse will continue for at least another year as the Boston Bruins fell to the Florida Panthers 4-3 Sunday in an electric Game 7 of the first round of the NHL playoffs.
The Panthers got out to a quick start, going up 2-0. The high-powered Bruins came storming back, scoring three unanswered goals to take the lead.
With a minute left in the third period and the fans at TD Garden in Boston going wild, the Panthers’ Brandon Montour scored to tie the game and send it to overtime, silencing the home crowd.
fter a couple of scoring chances in the overtime period for both teams, Panthers center Carter Verhaeghe scored to eliminate the Bruins from the playoffs.
Florida completed an improbable comeback, from being down 3-1 in the series to winning three straight games to advance to the next round.
The Bruins, who broke the NHL record for most wins (65) and most points (135) in a single season, join a list of teams who took home the President’s Trophy and did not win the Stanley Cup. The President’s Trophy is awarded to the team that finishes the regular season with the most points.
The last team to win the award and the Cup in the same year was the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2012-2013 season. The Bruins, who have won the Trophy two other times in the last 10 years, were eliminated both times in the second round of the playoffs (2013-2014, 2019-2020).
The Panthers will face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round.
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