Economic Update: Amazon Workers Organize a Union

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This week on Economic Update, Prof. Wolff talks about oil and gas inflation, its impacts, and politicians' phony solutions, the stagnant US gender pay gap and its significance, and why Americans are experiencing economic crisis, while Biden pretends the US economy has "recovered" and is in great shape. In the second half of the show, Wolff interviews Amazon union leader Chris Smalls about union organizing efforts across Amazon and beyond in a revived labor militancy.

***Since the recording of this episode last week, the Amazon Labor Union secured a major victory and has established the first Amazon union in the country under the leadership of @Chris.Smalls_. This is a historic event and we want to express our congratulations to Chris and the Amazon Union workers on this historic feat.


Transcript has been edited for clarity

Welcome friends to another edition of Economic Update. I'm your host Richard Wolff. Today, I'll be discussing the rising fuel cost, the gender wage gap and also how the people of America disagree with President Biden about the state of our economy. In the second half, we'll be speaking with today's guest, former Amazon employee and labor organizer, Christian Smalls.

Well, my first update has to do with a ploy of America's politicians. Yeah, again, in this case it's governors and some state legislatures that are coming out with what they call “consumer-friendly” proposals to deal with rising fuel costs which are really spiraling out of control. And here's what they're going to do—they say— they're going to cut taxes on gas or they're going to give consumers debit cards to use at the gas station etc. and they're acting as though they are thereby solving the problem.

They aren’t—because if they cut the taxes on gas or if they give people debit cards that means they're using the money that the government would otherwise have used for public services…to help people buy fuel and therefore they're going to be without that money. And either they’ll raise our taxes somewhere else or—they’ll cut public services. That’s not a big help to us. That's just moving things from one category to another. Helping us with the gas price and hurting us with higher taxes or cuts in services. This is flimflam and nobody should be fooled and let's be clear—there is a terrible fuel price inflation going on.

It began long before Russia invaded Ukraine and now it is going to be (and is already) being blamed on the Russians—because it's good these days to blame the Russians for nearly everything. Here’s an irony for people to understand:—the price of oil around the world has shot up and it's indicated it may go up a good bit further. One of the greatest producers and exporters of oil in the world is Russia which means that the war in Ukraine coupled with the sanctions the United States (and others) are imposing on Russia is helping to drive up the price of oil which is a revenue for Russia. In other words, Russia's war and the response helps Russia pay for the war by the rising revenue from oil. Think about it.

And these sanctions that are supposed to hurt Russia…They are making the price of gas and oil around the world higher and that is helping Russia to pay for the war. But let's be clear, these sanctions (with these bad effects for most Americans and the good effects for Russia) are supposed to bring the country to its knees and force them to change their policies. Well let's see, we've been sanctioning Cuba since 1961. No big success over there—not even close. We’ve sanctioned Russia since 1989. Things apparently got worse for the US—not better. We sanctioned Iran and that hasn't worked out real well. And, the biggest sanctions of all were those of Mr. Trump (for all four years of his presidency) against China (a trade war, he said, which would be easy to win). Tariffs were applied to literally everything coming to the US from China and we’ve never seen sanctions like that. And did it change Chinese policy? Not that anyone can tell.

So, now we have a big sanction against Russia. Notice anything about the continued use of things that don't work? The fuel inflation will pass into everything we do—it is very serious. Oil is the basis of fertilizer. Oil is the basis of how everything gets from where it's produced to where it’s consumed—on a truck or a plane. We are going to be paying heavily for what's going on in the world. It is not far away. Very strange policy.

My next update has to do with a very important statistic—the gap between the wages on average earned by men versus those earned by women in our economy. From 1979 to 1994, the gender gap, as it's called, narrowed. Women at the beginning of that time got 38 percent less pay on average than men but by the end,1994, it was only 23 percent. But then everything stopped. From 1994 to 2021—there was no change in the gender gap. It was 22 percent in 2021…it was 23 percent in 1994. This is a fundamental injustice to women (in our capitalist economy) and we know how to explain it.

Men's wages never went up. Men's wages stagnated. When the women came into the labor force, in that earlier period (1979 to 1994), they went after the better paying jobs. Better paying jobs than women had had (until that point) and that's why the gap narrowed. But since 1994, (under Democrats and Republicans alike) the average gap, the injustice of underpaying women hasn't been changed. Yes, we have seen women become CEOs, not large numbers, but enough to tell a story that women were advancing. And yes, women were allowed into various professions and that's a good thing. But for the mass of women, no, no, no, no, no. Window dressing for a few (typically at the top of the income distribution) but for the mass of our women—No, the injustice continues.

It’s part of the whole assault on the working class. Men's wages didn't go up. Women’s [wages], as they came into the labor force, in the earlier period, got better because the women entering the labor force got slightly better jobs. But since 1994, that’s 25 years, friends, the injustice has been perpetuated—not addressed—and that stands as a critique. The working class was really hurt because during those times, output grew and profits grew—but the wages didn’t. Not for men and not for women nor did they change the gap between them. An injustice perpetuated may be playing a role in the revival of a militant labor movement—that we're going to be hearing more about later today when we talk with Chris Smalls from the Amazon Labor Union.

My final update for today can best be described as understanding the basic difference between how Mr. Biden wants us to think about the economy today and how the mass of the American people feel it, live it and think about it. I’m going to draw here on the University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers. This is one of the oldest, most widely used surveys of what the American people are feeling about their economic situation that we have had. The surveys are very old, almost a century now, started in the 1940s. It's remarkable and we use them all the time. Well, here's something to think about…it is currently at its lowest level—that is—consumer sentiment—how they feel about the economy since August of 2011. Here's another statistic: 32 percent of the people surveyed expect their own finances to worsen in the future. That is the worst number since these surveys began, as I said, in the mid-1940s. The current level of [positive] consumer sentiment, March of 2022, 59.4 percent. A year ago, March of 2021—when we were still in the depths of the pandemic—it was 84.9 percent. It's gotten 30 percent worse over the last year.

And here's some more data for you to think about. Mortgage rates this week hit 4.4 percent. That adds $300 a month to the average mortgage in this country—to stay in your home. We have the highest inflation rate since 1982. Wow, that’s light years from the “robust American economy” or the “Great American Economic Recovery”. Those are quotes from President Biden and the advisers around him who speak to the public. This is mirage politics. This is saying that it is what you wish it would be but the sentiment from the surveys of consumers undertaken by the University of Michigan speak a very, very different story. And here's the game, the Biden administration uses the one good number they can find—unemployment—which is down. That’s an interesting number. That’s absolutely appropriate to talk about but, to use that and then to say we're in good shape? That’s the equivalent of going to a doctor when you really hurt all over. He puts a thermometer in your mouth. It turns out you have 98.6 and so he sends you out of his office and home because you're in great shape! You’d never go to that doctor again—no x-ray, no blood test, no anything.

There are lots of ways of determining how well (or not) you are and there are lots of statistics that tell us how successful the economy is or isn’t. Mr. Biden cherry picks the unemployment number—you know why—because it's the only positive number he's got. All the others point the other way which the American people (when they’re surveyed) made clear. Don’t be fooled!

All right folks, we've come to the end of the first part of today's show and as always I want to thank our growing audience. Whether you're a financial supporter or are sharing our work with others, you're partnering with us makes this show and others that we produce possible and effective. To learn more about the work we do, like producing David Harvey's show the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, go to our website: https://www.democracyatwork.info/ where you can sign up for our mailing list, connect with us on social media and more. Please stay with us. We'll be right back to talk about Amazon, the American Labor Movement…the reawakening of that movement with Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee and an active labor organizer there.

RDW: Welcome back friends to the second half of today's economic update. I am very pleased and proud to bring to our microphones and cameras, Chris Smalls. He was an Amazon warehouse management assistant. He got fired in March of 2020 after he organized an employee walkout to protest Amazon's failure to protect warehouse workers from Covid. He helped found the Congress of Essential Workers—a network of workers and allies fighting to protect workers from exploitative CEOs. Chris is president of the Amazon Labor Union based in Staten Island, New York and he's famous for his twitter handle (@Shut_DownAmazon). So first of all Chris, thank you very much for giving us your time.

CS: Absolutely thank you for having me.

RDW: Okay, let's begin with kind of the big question: Why do you believe in, as you obviously do, and work to build a union for Amazon employees?

CS: Sure, well you know the first thing is they fired me after working at Amazon for nearly five years. I started with the company in 2015. I was an assistant manager for four and a half years there, opened up three buildings in the Tri-State area. And after I led the walkout in 2020, they terminated me over the phone. And from that moment, I felt that, you know, what happened to me shouldn't have happened to anybody, especially in the middle of a pandemic. And, what really was the icing on the cake was when Jeff Bezos himself held the meeting with his general counsel, David Zapolsky, his top general lawyer for Amazon and in that meeting they discussed to call me “not smart or articulate” and to make me the face of the whole unionizing effort against Amazon. So when I heard that, when that leaked conversation leaked out to the public, to the media, I took it upon myself to pretty much continue advocating for worker’s rights. Up until the point where, about 11 months ago, we founded the ALU, the Amazon Labor Union and we wanted to try our efforts here in Staten Island.

RDW: All right, I mean you already have answered this but I need to ask you to expand a little bit…How hard is Amazon working to try to block or prevent or undermine what you're trying to do?

CS: Yeah, for context, the campaign in Alabama…in Bessemer, Alabama, they spent…it’s been reported they spent 25 million dollars last year stopping that union campaign. They were successful—in that campaign results came in the company's favor. They're doing the same thing here in New York—we’re trying to unionize four facilities. So, they spent the same amount of money or more—we’re estimating at least 50, 60 million—they spent on stopping us in the last 11 months. You know, they're flying these union-busters in from all over the country—even all over the world—some, even from the UK. They're paying them anywhere between 3,000 to 10,000 dollars a day. They’re holding captive audiences every single day—putting workers in classrooms trying to, pretty much, create doubt on joining the union. They've been doing this for the last 11 months since we started back in April 2021.

RDW: And yet, Chris, I understand this, but you know as a person who looks at the media every day, as part of my life, I do get the impression—and I'd like your judgment here—that despite this kind of effort by Amazon—it’s spreading, that is the desire to form unions—at Amazon locations and of course beyond that. But, particularly in your case, with Amazon, it seems to be growing despite their efforts. Is that correct? Am I reading that right?

CS: I believe so, I believe ever since the pandemic started, you know, workers have been deemed essential workers and I think we're realizing our value is a lot greater since these companies and these different industries accumulated so much wealth throughout the course of the pandemic. Especially Amazon, you know Jeff Bezos made over 88 billion dollars off our backs and I think now workers are now realizing we're worth a lot more. We need to be paid a lot more and treated a lot better.

And you've seen the uprising of unions with Starbucks, you've seen all the strikes that have been happening across the country. I think the labor movement has a microscope on it right now and I’m hoping that this union drive in New York will also be a catalyst for a revolution where unions will start to be back on the uprising in this country. You know, ever since the 1930s, we’re talking about unions diminishing to less than 10 percent.

RDW: You know that's so important. I need to draw you out to get more from you about this. You know, all those years, since the Great Depression, since the 1930s, when unions really rose up and and changed America, everybody involved has been wondering when will the decline stop? When will the year by year smaller numbers…smaller numbers right down to the 10 percent, as you say. What is going on now that hadn't gone on 5,10,15, 20 years ago? How do you account for the fact that you're able to mobilize now? That people are moving, like you say in Starbucks and all over the place as well. You know we're all trying to figure out why is this happening? Partly, because it’s important to know but partly it’s important to understand how best to sustain this kind of a change.

CS: Yeah, I always mentioned 2020—it’s kind of like 20-20 vision to a lot of systemic problems in this country. From the labor movement to the social justice movement to the environmental movement—all these things are under a microscope as far as what the American people want in this country…going into the future. You know, pre-Covid - a lot of things—were just going and operating without people really paying attention. But, when everything came to a stop, it seemed like workers and the working-class people—we kind of realized that we can't just go back to what it was pre-Covid anymore.

So, now what you're seeing is workers not just quitting their job—they’re unionizing, they’re organizing their workplaces. And that's what it's going to take to get to a better place and apply that pressure to our lawmakers. The laws need to be revamped. The 1930s—obviously it’s not the 21st century anymore. These industries that we're organizing have been crushing union campaigns for decades. Now we're at a point where, once again, the younger generation—myself and other activists—we’re putting pressure on lawmakers to pass things like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act which will protect workers to organize their workplace and if they can't do that—we’ve got to apply pressure on the NLRB, which is the National Labor Relations Board.

RDW: Let me ask your opinion on something. There’s been a lot of attention over the last four or five months on the remarkable statistics about people quitting. Walking away from a job because it's not bearable or it's not tolerable anymore to stay with it. But, I remember thinking to myself, I understand the frustration and the anger and all of that. But…if you leave a job, you're going to go have to get another one. And you're going to face more or less the same kind of conditions. So that, is there a learning process going on?…where people quit and then realize that's not the solution? But organizing a union and changing the way the workplace is set up is a better solution. Is something like that going on?

CS: Yeah, absolutely. Even myself, you know I wasn't a union organizer. Now, look at me, I'm the current interim president of the Amazon Labor Union. I realized from working—being pretty much deemed an essential worker since I was 16…17 years old—my first job at Target. When you quit a job and you get another job you're jumping from one fire into another fire. As you mentioned, more or less, it could be better or worse. What I realized, after Amazon, after pouring my blood and sweat and tears into a company for nearly five years, (and giving it my best shot to move up in the company) and just for them to terminate me wrongfully—that pretty much woke me up to saying that something needs to be done. This can't just be happening to everybody and everybody just be okay with it. I think now people are realizing we can't just quit our jobs anymore because if that means nothing gets changed, nothing gets done—the system continues to operate the way it's been operating. But, if you unionize…you organize your workplace—things can change. I think that's what workers are realizing now as well.

RDW: Is it going on all over the place? In other words, I don't want to be…I don’t want wishes to take over my brain—so I want to ask someone like you who’s right in the thick of it. Do you feel, do you see this really beginning to spread all over the place? Not just at Amazon (not that that wouldn't be a big breakthrough just by itself ) but is this really, now, can we talk about a general… you said it a few minutes ago… a general reawakening (let’s call it) of the labor movement?

CS: I believe so and I believe Amazon is obviously one of the most powerful retailers in the world in modern history—along with Walmart. And I believe workers are paying attention. I can tell you from my own personal journey that workers have been reaching out to me from different industries for the last two years—ever since I've been terminated and been in the public advocating for workers rights. So workers are definitely watching to see what we're doing.

I'm here in New York and watching to see the outcome of this election. Win, lose or draw—I believe that it doesn't stop anything—it only just once again shows workers that it’s possible to even get to this point. And I believe that workers are going to start unionizing at a rapid pace because now they see that, once again, the CEOs of these companies are making billions upon billions on our backs and they're flying to space and coming back and thanking us. And that's just not gonna fly with us anymore.

If we're essential workers, that means that we're a necessity. That means that they need us.

RDW: Okay, here’s a hard question…you took a loss…that is the unionization effort that you mentioned earlier in Alabama and so on. But, it looks as though—win lose or draw as you say—this isn't going to go away—that these losses are not going to destroy the morale—or be like a punch in the gut where you can't go forward. It turns out that the organizing effort knows it's going to win some, lose some, but the point is to keep going. Am I right? That's the kind of spirit that's now there so that a loss here or there doesn't have what the owners wish it did— which is the effect of stopping the process.

CS: Yeah, absolutely. I don't even consider them to be losses. I just consider them to be minor setbacks, you know. Because we're not going anywhere. The workers realize—even though they were unsuccessful last year—that Amazon spent 25 million dollars trying to stop that campaign. They interfered with it. That's why the board ruled for them to have a rerun which is actually currently going on at the same time. So, hopefully they’ll be successful (the second time around) in Alabama. But, here in New York, for sure, I can tell you, whatever happens at the end of our election… and when the results come out…we’re not stopping. Once again, as the current interim president, we already have the second election due for next month in April, at our second facility that we organized. I can tell you, once again, that I have interest in over 18 buildings all across the nation from different workers and different facilities that want to unionize, so for us this is really just the beginning. This is really just day one for us.

RDW: Are you getting any help from the politicians? If you are, is it sufficient? What's the relationship between this effort which affects so many people and the political parties that run this country?

CS: Well, unfortunately, it's not enough support that we have…as of recently we started to have a couple politicians show up to our rallies and events. That was pretty much after we already filed for our petition. As far as the public support, we don't have as much as we should.

This should be one of the most talked about campaigns in the entire country right now—but unfortunately we’re not—that doesn't add up when you're talking about politicians on the left, that stand in the labor movement—that stand up for our workers’ rights. There's a lot of progressives that claim that they stand in solidarity with these workers but I haven't yet had their support yet—publicly—to the point where Amazon workers can realize that they do have this type of support. So, they need to step up—that's a guarantee. They need to step up and also help out and support in any way they could with their platforms.

RDW: Thank you, Chris Smalls. I hope this program helps right there on that last point of yours—to build support in the public and among the people who claim to represent us in the public.

You are changing this country by the struggle you're waging and you are a hero for many people. And, you deserve our support. Thank you again for joining us.

And to all of my audience, I hope you have learned what is going on a bit in the labor movement. It is remarkable…it is crucial and we will be talking about it more. I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by one of Barbara Bartlett.

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About our guest:  Chris Smalls is a former Amazon warehouse management assistant who was fired in March of 2020 after he organized an employee walkout to protest Amazon’s poor response to COVID-19, and its failure to protect warehouse workers from infection. Chris is one of the founders of The Congress of Essential Workers, a collaborative network of workers and allies fighting for the elimination of billionaires, for wealth redistribution, and to protect the working class from exploitative CEOs. Chris is President of the Amazon Labor Union based in Staten Island NY. He’s sometimes better known by his Twitter handle, “Shut down Amazon”

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Showing 2 comments

  • Maria Carnemolla-Mania
    commented 2022-04-08 12:42:29 -0400
    Dear Edward,

    Prof. Wolff has responded to your message: Thank you for your message. You are quite right. Moreover, thinking about your comments suggests to me the need to devote more time and effort to a broader discussion of the housing market in the face of the Covid 19 debacle, the econ crash, the inflation and now the impending recession if/when interest rates are ratcheted upward quickly and far. If this inflation – which already is eating into real incomes for most Americans – undercuts capacities to funny housing, we may see downward troubles in housing sooner than many seem willing to imagine. The “perfect storm” given all the other downdrafts percolating throughout the system?
  • Edward Dodson
    commented 2022-04-06 12:35:29 -0400
    Professor Wolff touched on one result of the slow increase in interest rates orchestrated by the Federal Reserve. While it is true that this will increase the monthly carrying cost per dollar borrowed for the purchase of a residential property, it is important to understand that the long period of very low mortgage interest rates has resulted in property price increases such that even at 3 or 4 percent interest rates, many households (particularly renters seeking to purchase their first property) are priced out of the market.

    Absent widespread increases in individual and household income and savings, the property markets will stall and crash. At that point, those who purchased a property at the height of the market with a minimum down payment will be the first to experience negative equity. If the downturn in property prices broadens into a general recession, the nation will once again be dealing with millions of mortgage loan defaults, evictions and vacant housing units even as homelessness increases.
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