Labor leader Chris Smalls, president of Amazon Labor Union, speaks during the Labor Notes conference, in Chicago, Illinois. Smalls organized an Amazon Warehouse on Staten Island, New York, after being fired
Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
As tensions within the union grew, Smalls was caught on camera fighting an Amazon worker outside a warehouse last year.
On the night of December 5, the president of the Amazon Labor Union pummeled another union member. He did it in front of the only Amazon warehouse to vote in favor of unionization.
As Christian Smalls landed blows to James “Most” Daley’s upper body, Derrick Palmer, the union’s vice president, tried to hold Daley back, a video of the incident obtained by Insider shows.
“Ain’t that supposed to be our union rep, acting like a damn fool out there?” a bystander said as the fight broke up. “Did you all vote for the union? Really? Really?”
The whole thing had gone down in view of dozens of people standing at a bus stop outside of the JFK8 Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York.
The fight was the culmination of months of tension between Smalls and Daley, 37, a former Amazon Labor Union organizer whom Smalls had lauded earlier last year for convincing coworkers to vote in favor of unionization.
The men had a fraught history, and Daley had been threatening Smalls for months, according to messages Daley shared with Insider and interviews with two other ALU organizers. On that December day, Daley initiated physical contact with Smalls, Daley said in an interview with Insider. The video shows Daley moving aggressively toward Smalls. Daley can also be seen taking swings, though it’s not clear if he landed blows on Smalls.
The root of their disagreement, though, was related to Smalls’ ascendant fame — which many Amazon Labor Union organizers feel has overshadowed his responsibilities to the union he helped found.
That sentiment has contributed to a rift within the union that goes beyond the dramatic confrontation with Daley, pitting Smalls loyalists against those who believe the union would be better served without him. The fracture deepened after a December 9 meeting, The New York Times reported, in which Smalls told people who did not support him to leave.
“You got a problem with me? Deuces,” he told union organizers in that meeting, the Times reported. Some longtime Amazon Labor Union organizers decided to begin organizing on their own, without Smalls.
Since the union’s victory last April in Staten Island, Smalls has risen to celebrity status as the face of a newly resurgent labor movement. With a shoestring budget and little formal labor-organizing experience, the Amazon Labor Union had scored a rare victory against a corporate behemoth that has spent millions in an attempt to sway union votes.
The feat propelled Smalls onto magazine covers and red carpets. Smalls was invited to the White House to meet President Joe Biden, who told Smalls the labor leader was his “kind of trouble.” Smalls and Palmer were named two of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2022. Both have received book deals, and Smalls has a Hollywood agent, according to IMDb Pro.
But as Smalls’ prominence has grown over the past three years, he has repeatedly come into conflict with fellow labor activists and has often responded to criticism by ostracizing his critics. Drawing on interviews, chat logs, and text exchanges, an Insider investigation found many organizers he has worked with view him as a threat to the success of the union and more focused on personal fame than the workers he represents. These incidents paint a portrait of Smalls’ leadership that is very different from his carefully cultivated image of a beloved labor leader with a unique ability to organize disenfranchised workers.
Over the past year Smalls has also dealt with personal issues that include failure to pay child support and spending a three-day stint in a New Jersey jail.
Workers who support Smalls say his fame is propelling the union’s success, not hampering it. To them, his critics are simply upset that their attempted “coup” didn’t work, and recent media coverage of union infighting is a last ditch attempt from a losing side. Smalls is “helping to inspire” workers to unionize, ALU staffer Evangeline Byars said, and his increased status is a byproduct of managing to take on Amazon when no one else could.
“Someone’s gotta be a potential star in this thing,” said Gerald Bryson, another of Smalls’ close allies. “It happens to be Chris. He’s the one who got us where he’s at.”
Smalls dismisses the notion that he is personally famous. Union organizing, he said, is grueling work. His union salary was less than $30,000 last year, financial disclosures show.
“Just because I meet celebrities don’t make me a celebrity,” he said in an interview surrounded by several of his supporters at the ALU’s union hall, a small suite of professional offices in a wooded area of Staten Island. “I don’t even have health insurance.”
‘We are starting a revolution’
Smalls, 34, rose to national prominence as the face of the fight against Amazon in 2020. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized a walkout of the Staten Island warehouse where he worked to protest what he said were Amazon’s lax safety measures.
Executives at Amazon’s highest levels took notice.
In one meeting, Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, derided Smalls as “not smart or articulate,” and proposed making him the face of labor activism at Amazon in order to weaken the legitimacy of workers’ demands, according to a meeting memo obtained by Vice. (Zapolsky later said his emotions got the better of him.)
President Joe Biden invited Smalls to the White House last May.
The White House
Zapolsky’s remarks generated an outpouring of support for Smalls and his nascent workers’ movement. Smalls had just been fired by Amazon over what he said were his organizing efforts, and he seemed prepared to continue taking the fight to the corporate behemoth. (Amazon has said Smalls was fired for returning to work while in quarantine after having been exposed to a colleague who had coronavirus.)
“We are starting a revolution and people around the country support us,” Smalls wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian at the time.
Smalls founded a group called The Congress of Essential Workers that traveled from city to city to stage protests, including in front of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ homes in Beverly Hills, Seattle, and Washington, DC. Smalls’ courage in taking on one of the largest corporations in the world got him the attention of other labor groups and longtime activists, some of whom joined the Congress, which by the fall of 2020 numbered about 35 people.
Within that organization, though, concerns were growing about Smalls’ leadership.
In late 2020, a group of 15 people involved in the Congress published an open letter criticizing Smalls’ failure to file for nonprofit status, establish financial transparency, and take steps to ensure the safety of protesters at a rally, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Insider.
“Smalls has created a culture of resistance to infrastructure and documentation,” they wrote. “As a result of this avoidance, we have no organization. We have nothing tangible to offer essential workers — no financial assistance, no substantial legal aid, no resources. We cannot even help our own struggling Amazon employee members.”
Smalls told them to stand behind him or leave.
“I don’t owe anyone anything,” Smalls texted dozens of people in the organization’s group chat, according to a transcript of the chat obtained by Insider. He added he was not “obligated to show proof to those who’ve been conspiring behind my back.”
“Those who I hope to have helped turned on me for what is really nonsense,” he wrote, telling people who disagreed with him to “just simply dismiss yourself.”
The signatories, who were mostly women, queer people, and people of color, some with extensive organizing experience, quietly left the organization, according to interviews with three of them. All three said they believe in Smalls’ mission and support the goals of the Amazon Labor Union, but worry about Smalls’ ability to lead.
“To see someone who I believe to be abusing their power, an emperor with no clothes, continue to gain traction was not only painful, but also to see the Amazon Labor Union, or the movement in general continue to grow, I’m like how do I speak to what I experienced without discrediting the entire movement?” said one of the organizers who criticized Smalls in 2020.
Chris Smalls’ rise to fame
Smalls has placed himself at the center of the Amazon Labor Union and its success, a portrayal that has been amplified in the media.
“This movement started from what happened to me,” he wrote in a 2020 Congress of Essential Workers group chat. In Politico, he was “the ex-rapper who made unionizing cool again.” In the New York Times, Smalls and Palmer were “the two best friends who beat Amazon.” Time Magazine wondered if Smalls was the future of the labor movement.
Smalls on the red carpet for an event honoring Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2022.
Angela Weiss/Getty Images
Those characterizations struck some ALU organizers as erasing their painstaking work building support for the union among Amazon employees. And while the ALU had scored one early, momentous success at JFK8, elsewhere, it appeared the union’s momentum was fizzling.
Losses at a warehouse next to JFK8, called LDJ5, and at another warehouse in Albany, where workers voted against joining the Amazon Labor union last year, exacerbated the sense among some ALU organizers that Smalls’ rising public profile was a double-edged sword.
The history of labor movements often includes charismatic figures who become celebrities in their own right, to both the benefit and detriment of their unions. Leaders like Smalls can bring momentum and attention to organizing efforts, but can also become untethered from the difficult work of securing contracts and sustaining organizing efforts, three labor experts and historians told Insider.
“It’s not uncommon that people who build something are not necessarily the most equipped to run it,” said Miriam Pawel, the author of books about labor leader Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.
Among the organizers who bristled at Smalls’ increasing status, Daley was especially incensed. In a New York Magazine cover story profiling Smalls, Daley publicly criticized Smalls, saying he had become self-centered and suggesting he was unfit to lead.
Daley and Smalls had gotten along well until about a week after the election, Daley said. In a press conference on April 8, a week after the union won its historic vote at JFK8, Smalls introduced Daley by saying he’d seen Daley “call people on his damn phone and say, ‘You better get your butt down here and vote for this union.'” (Smalls has since downplayed his compliments for Daley, telling Insider, “I praise everybody.”)
The next day, Smalls, Daley, and a handful of other Amazon Labor Union organizers attended a luncheon in Albany hosted by state legislators to feature labor leaders. Daley took a photo with Mayor Eric Adams.
The Amazon Labor Union organizers returned to New York City that day. Smalls stayed behind. Daley and others later learned he had attended an exclusive after-party by himself. To them, it felt like Smalls was leaving them behind to enjoy the fruits of fame. Daley called Smalls out in an Instagram message. Smalls deflected. “What party?” Smalls wrote in a message to Daley. “Don’t make up shit bro if you don’t know.”
Smalls celebrates with Amazon Labor Union organizers after winning a unionization vote at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, the first and only Amazon warehouse to vote to unionize.
ANDREA RENAULT/AFP via Getty Images
Daley responded to Smalls with threats, two other ALU members said, and was kicked off the union’s messaging platforms and uninvited to meetings.
Over Instagram, Daley sent Smalls hostile messages over a period of several months, according to a messaging history Daley shared with Insider.
“Listen and listen real good,” Daley wrote, telling Smalls to “stop trying to play with my intelligence” and warning that “there won’t be any talking.” Daley also sent an Instagram reel of a person pretending to punch and kick the camera. “Finally caught up with my coworker that been talking sh*t about me,” text overlaying the video read. (Daley said he’d originally received that video from someone loyal to Smalls and sent it to Smalls as an example of the type of harassment he was receiving.)
Amazon suspended Palmer while investigating the fight, Palmer said, ultimately reinstating him. His supporters at the ALU offices pointed to Palmer’s reinstatement as proof he wasn’t in the wrong. Amazon declined to comment on their investigation.
In a text message, Smalls criticized Insider’s decision to report on the fight. There are “so many other things to report on with Amazon,” he wrote, including that the company spent $14.2 million on union-busting consultants last year.
The fight “isn’t news for the public,” he wrote. “It happened months ago and we’re not talking about it anymore.”
Some Amazon workers have problems with Smalls
While Daley’s animosity toward Smalls took on the air of a personal grudge, other Amazon Labor Union members had begun to have similar doubts about how Smalls was handling his newfound fame, according to interviews with four ALU organizers. They felt that the more prominent Smalls became, the less interested he seemed in directing his attention to securing union victories at other Amazon warehouses or building support for the type of actions that might force Amazon to the bargaining table at JFK8.
Last summer, some ALU organizers began publicly voicing concerns about the union’s lack of infrastructure. As the face of the movement, Smalls was essential to organizing efforts, workers told Bloomberg. But some also said he was a mercurial manager who could not be relied upon to do the day-to-day work of union organizing, such as showing up to rallies. (Smalls has said it is dangerous for him to trespass on Amazon’s property, where he is not a worker, because he could be arrested.)
Emails from workers at other Amazon warehouses seeking to start their own union went unanswered. The labor union yanked its support from a warehouse organizing in Kentucky last October, according to Payday Report. It’s still pushing for unionization at another Kentucky site, Amazon’s KCVG Air Hub.
The same month, workers organizing with the Amazon Labor Union at a warehouse in California withdrew their election petition. Byars, the ALU staffer, told Insider that workers at the California warehouse, known as ONT8, are still organizing and plan to seek an election, but she claimed Amazon inflated the number of eligible employees and began bombarding employees with anti-union messaging, prompting delays. (An Amazon spokesperson denied that the company inflated the number of employees at ONT8.)
In the year since the Amazon Labor Union won its election at JFK8, there have been few visible organizing gains affecting the nearly 6,000 workers in the facility. Several workers Insider spoke with outside the facility described feeling relatively disconnected from the union and unaware of the drama that was engulfing organizers. One worker, who had voted for unionization, felt not much had changed about her work since the vote and said she didn’t hear much from the union compared with the weekly texts and emails she received from local Amazon management.
Smalls said about 2,500 to 3,500 JFK8 workers open the regular emails the union sends out. Organizing within the warehouse, he said, had been hampered by a new Amazon policy that banned workers from warehouses when they weren’t scheduled to work. A federal labor agency directed Amazon last month to allow off-duty workers access to break rooms, which Smalls and Byars said will help the union by giving organizers more face time with colleagues.
The disputes came to a head at the December meeting, The New York Times reported last month, where some organizers were surprised to see that the ALU’s constitution had been amended to state that elections would be held only after a contract was reached at JFK8 — which could take years. Until then, Smalls and others close to him would remain at the helm of the organization. Many organizers walked out.
Smalls has partially characterized the rift along racial lines. Most of his critics in the union are white, while the union’s leadership is largely Black, he told Insider. In an interview, his supporter Gerald Bryson described the walkout as a coup: “They wanted more power,” he said.
Amazon Labor Union members consoled each other after the union lost the vote at its second warehouse, LDJ5, last April.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Heather Goodall, who led the Amazon Labor Union’s organizing efforts at an Albany warehouse last year, said Smalls’ constant travel and seeming disorganization derailed her attempts to plan events around him.
She was never sure when he would arrive at the warehouse, she said. Text messages between Goodall and Smalls show her repeatedly asking him to confirm when he would be in Albany.
During one tense exchange, after Smalls said he would be late to a union rally and would miss a call that night, Smalls sent Goodall cash to cover expenses for lunch.
“I just sent you $500 of my own money what else would you like me to do for you?” Smalls wrote.
“I don’t want you to send me your personal money. I just need to be organized,” Goodall replied, “but we will talk about that when I see you.”
The union lost in a landslide last October.
At that point, she said, she began losing faith in Smalls’ leadership.
“I started questioning Christian’s actions, his traveling,” she said. “We haven’t seen or heard from anyone since the election.”
Criticism of Smalls’ lack of involvement in union elections at warehouses outside JFK8 is misplaced, Bryson said. “You can’t have someone like me over in Western Virginia recruit people. You gotta have the people in the building run it,” he said. “It’s up to that person to give support to their building to unionize. It’s not up to us.”
Questions over ALU’s finances
Less than two weeks after the Albany warehouse lost its election, Smalls was at a Los Angeles gala hosted by Ebony magazine, which had named him one of its 100 most influential people of 2022. Since the start of the year, Smalls’ Instagram has shown him in Canada, the UK, and Kentucky.
Smalls told Goodall in late January that he needed to be constantly traveling in order to fundraise. “If I don’t get us money from elsewhere we go bankrupt,” he texted her in January.
Goodall was skeptical. She emailed the union’s executive board, asking for information about the union’s finances. The board declined to answer.
Goodall wasn’t the only person to have raised concerns about financial transparency.
“A lot of money was coming in once we won the first election, and a lot of money is going out,” said Mat Cusick, a former ALU organizer who has said he was pushed out in May. Cusick published a public resignation letter laying bare his concerns about Smalls’ leadership, including his perception that Smalls had launched “a secret consolidation of power.”
“There were not good accountability procedures in place at the time that I left, and there were serious concerns about embezzlement and misuse of funds at that point,” Cusick told Insider.
Cusick next encountered Smalls at a labor conference in June, where Cusick said Smalls pushed him. (Smalls denied doing so.) On Twitter the next day, Smalls accused Cusick of stealing money from workers. (Cusick has said that is false.)
Financial disclosures filed last week by the ALU show that the union raised more than $850,000 last year, more than half of it from just three donors — the American Federation of Teachers, the International Commission for Labor Rights, and the leftist Twitch streamer Hasan Piker.
Smalls walks with Senator Bernie Sanders at a union rally last April.
KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images
The biggest single line item was $200,000 from the ALU’s GoFundMe. The GoFundMe, though, had raised more than $440,000 from small donors between February and July last year, when the union shut it down and moved the donation page to the ALU’s website.
The other $240,000 raised through the GoFundMe is not reflected in the union’s financial disclosures because it was spent on organizing activities before the union established a bank account last summer, said Connor Spence, who was previously the union’s treasurer. Spence broke with Smalls last year and resigned his role in the ALU.
That discrepancy is not necessarily an indicator of malfeasance, said John Logan, a labor studies professor at San Francisco State University who has testified before Congress about unions’ required financial disclosures. It’s not uncommon for young labor organizations to struggle to adhere to strict federal financial reporting requirements, he said. And because GoFundMe campaigns are relatively new in the world of labor organizing, it may not be clear how unions should characterize revenue generated through GoFundMe in those required disclosures, he added.
“This is a cumbersome and unwieldy process,” he said. “But the most common thing is mistakes rather than any kind of nefarious activities going on.”
Spence acknowledged that the union should have established more formal accounting structures sooner than it did. “When you’re starting a new organization, no one tells you these things,” he said.
The union’s finances are now managed by an accounting firm, Smalls said in a text message.
Smalls has also said he needs to travel in order to book speaking gigs to pay his child support. Smalls failed to pay child support for nearly a year between September 2021 and August 2022, according to records provided by his ex-wife. He ultimately paid about $20,000 in child support arrears in two lump-sum payments, those records show, after he spent three days in jail last September. Smalls did not respond on the record to questions about his child support payments.
The circumstances of Smalls’ arrest are unclear. An electronic entry in the Bergen County jail’s online inmate finder indicates that Smalls was taken into custody by police in Hackensack for three days September 2022 for “simple assault” and “arrears,” the failure to pay money owed to another party. The Hackensack Police Department said it had no records of the arrest, and a clerk at the Hackensack Municipal Court said it had no records of a criminal charge against Smalls in 2022. A Bergen County Superior Court ombudsman said that records could only be obtained directly from the judge in the case.
Smalls did not respond on the record to questions about the arrest.
As the ALU rift grows, Smalls is eyeing a new project
Even as the Amazon Labor Union has splintered, Smalls and a core group of trusted lieutenants have begun turning their attention to new battles.
In February, Smalls, Palmer, Bryson and Jordan Flowers, who has also been involved in the union since its earliest days, registered a new nonprofit. They chose the same name as Smalls’ previous organization, The Congress of Essential Workers, where he had once fought over the open letter criticizing his leadership.
One purpose of the organization appears to be to raise funds for the Amazon Labor Union, according to its certificate of incorporation.
That would mean the new nonprofit would be the ALU’s fiscal sponsor — a 501(c)3 organization soliciting contributions on behalf of a union, which cannot accept tax-exempt donations. Such arrangements are not uncommon in the world of activism.
But the new Congress of Essential Workers nonprofit also has grander ambitions, according to its incorporation documents and an interview with Bryson.
Bryson said the new nonprofit will also support labor movements at other companies “whenever we finish with Amazon, whenever this whole ordeal is pretty much under control, and everyone’s falling in line.”
“We gotta deal with Jeff Bezos first. That was always the plan,” Bryson said. Then “it’s back to the next giant.”
Wooing philanthropists to fund new labor battles could pull the union’s focus from the ongoing contract fight with Amazon, warned the Rutgers labor professor Susan Schurman.
“The most important thing that the leadership of the ALU can do right now for the labor movement is to get a contract with Amazon at the warehouse,” she said. “There may be people who think it’s great that clearly this guy’s a charismatic leader, they’re thinking beyond organizing at Amazon, but the fact is a contract with Amazon at that warehouse would be a huge win for organizing everywhere.”
In the meantime, workers on both sides of the divide within the ALU say they’re intent on continuing to organize within Amazon warehouses.
Both Smalls’ backers and the organizers who disagree with his leadership are still trying to mobilize Amazon workers and address their concerns, according to Justine Medina, an ALU organizer in New York City who is hopeful that the two groups will reconcile. “Ultimately,” she said, “we’re all fighting against Bezos.”