Amazon Labor Union Suspends Kentucky Organizing Amid Controversy

Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls is facing criticism for abandoning Kentucky organizing (BBC)

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – “Man, what a rush. Wow, we really needed this,” exclaims Matt Littrell, a union organizer who was recently fired from Amazon, when we talked on Tuesday. Littrell had just received word that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had agreed to hear his case resulting from his firing from Amazon last August. 

“I had so many struggles trying just to survive out here,” says Littrell, fired from his job at Amazon’s Campbellsville, Kentucky facility last August. “Amazon fought my unemployment claim when I was first laid off, and I wasn’t able to even get any until December.”

To make ends meet, Littrell’s comrades launched a GoFundMe, which helped him pay his bills as Amazon fought his unemployment claim for five months. Littrell was overwhelmed by the community support that he received. 

One thing that Littrell didn’t expect was that his union, the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU), would abandon its organizing effort. 

In July, Amazon Labor Union, which won a historic union election last April to represent 6,000 Amazon workers at JFK8 on Staten Island, announced that they would organize workers in Campbellsville, Kentucky. The organizing effort would mark the first time the ALU attempted to organize outside New York. 

“It’s happening,” Smalls tweeted excitedly last July when Amazon Labor Union launched efforts to organize the Campbellsville, Kentucky facility with the hashtag #HotLaborSummer. 

The announcement received widespread media attention and praise from union activists, who were excited to see the independent union attempt to organize in the South. 

However, when the media attention went away, and the organizing got difficult, the Amazon Labor Union quickly went away, torpedoing the uphill union drives in this small Kentucky town. 

The incident raises troubling questions about the leadership of the Amazon Labor Union under its rookie 34-year-old president Chris Smalls. Activists say the incident is part of a worrisome pattern in the leadership of the ALU that has led some detractors to say that Smalls is more interested in media attention and has failed to support campaigns in a way that union leaders should adequately. 

The problems began last August when Littrell, who had been leading a union effort there, was terminated. 

“After I was fired, people were just very scared. We started losing people from our organizing committee,” says Littrell. “We’re just spinning our wheels in the mud.”

In October, three months after ALU announced its affiliation, the ALU decided to pull out resources from the Kentucky organizing project. The decision angered Littrell, whose organizing efforts attracted the interest and offers of support from various local unions. 

In September of 2021, Littrell launched an informal committee called SDF1 Action Committee, which they named after the Amazon warehouse where they work. SDF1 Action worked to address health and safety issues in the plant and win some changes in the facility. 

As SDF1 Action Committee began to try to change the culture in the plant slowly, they grew in the winter of 2021-2022 to a few dozen members on their committee. Then, in April of 2022, Amazon Labor Union workers in the company’s Staten Island warehouse became the first in the country to unionize. The victory on Staten Island kicked Littrell’s organizing into high gear.

“That was very motivating,” Littrell says. “That’s when most of our momentum actually picked up. That’s when I was emboldened to go out and start talking to people more and more.”

When the independent Amazon Labor Union approached Literell last summer with offers to support their organizing committee in Campbellsville, he jumped at the opportunity. 

“They made us an offer that we couldn’t refuse,” says Littrrel. “They promised us whatever we would need to get the organizing drive done. They promised us unlimited support.”

However, the campaign needed help moving forward after Littrell got fired in August. Many workers in the small town of Campbellsville feared they could be fired next if they continued to organize. 

“Well, we pretty much lost our union support, and me being the lead organizer getting fired – that was horrible for us,” says Littrell. 

After it appeared that the drive was facing serious difficulties, the Amazon Labor Union decided to withdraw its support in late October. 

“After I was fired, they pretty much no longer wanted to help us organize,” says Littrell.

With the lack of a national union supporting them, the organizing committee in Campbellsville voted in November to suspend organizing efforts. 

“We made the decision that maybe we’ll get some momentum going later. But at the moment, we cannot continue,” says Littrell.

The decision by ALU to abandon the organizing efforts frustrated Littrell. Two other unions, the Machinists and the local Teamsters, representing over 25,000 workers at UPS World Port in nearby Louisville, made overtures that their union would support Littrell if his committee affiliated with their unions. But Littrell turned down those other unions after Smalls, as president of the Amazon Labor Union, pledged his unlimited support and focus on trying to organize Amazon workers in Kentucky. 

Typically, unions assess organizing efforts for months before deciding to commit resources. Many unions plan for workers to get fired, and organizing efforts suffer setbacks that may take multiple years and go through leadership changes as workers leave or get pushed out. However, as soon as things got tough, Littrell says Smalls began to “ghost him” as Amazon Labor Union pulled out of Kentucky. 

“I’m like, god dammit. I wish I would have gone with the teamsters while I had the chance,” said Literell.

Smalls had supported himself for years through crowdfunding after being fired for organizing. However, when Literell was fired, he found himself getting “ghosted” by Smalls when he tried to contact the labor leader. 

“Chris Smalls wouldn’t even help me promote it. They were supposed to set up a GoFundMe for me to help me out.”

The ALU’s decision to abandon the Campbellville, Kentucky, organizing drive hurt workers at SDF1 and seriously hurt fledgling organizing efforts at other nearby facilities. 

“We had organizers, and Lexington had organizers in Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana, who were forming organizing committees at their warehouses. And they were also abandoned by the Amazon Labor Union,” says Littrell. “The Amazon Labor Union is not as committed to organizing as they make themselves appear.”

The incident isn’t the first time that Smalls has been criticized for not following through on commitments to organize. 

In early April 2022, less than a year ago, Smalls shocked the labor world when he successfully led an independent campaign to unionize Amazon’s 6,000-person warehouse at JFK8. Smalls received widespread international media attention, appearing on the Daily Show and even being profiled by the Style Section of the New York Times.  

Smalls was even invited to appear at the White House by President Joe Biden, with the White House releasing a video of Biden praising Smalls that went viral. 

A former rapper who toured professionally, Smalls “dripped out” hip hop style, made him a media sensation, and earned him speaking engagements across the country in a tour labeled “Hot Labor Summer.”

However, while Smalls was out doing media events, organizers complained that Smalls needed to pay more attention to local organizing efforts. 

In early May, the Amazon Labor Union was set to hold a union vote at the 1,500-person LDJ5 on Staten Island, just a month after Amazon Labor Union won a vote at a neighboring 6,000-person facility.

Smalls promised organizers that he would set up a tent outside the LDJ5 warehouse and be stationed there around the clock, as he had done for 11 months before the successful union vote. 

According to an in-depth investigation by Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post, Smalls again did not honor his promise to be a constant presence outside the plant gates. Instead, Smalls appeared on TV and attended high-end political fundraisers across the country as a guest of honor. The media attention was validated for him. 

Amazon, though, tried to paint Smalls as a celebrity, pointing out that he was largely MIA from talking to Amazon workers.

“We need you here. We’re going to lose this building,” lead LDJ5 organizer Maddie Wesley was quoted telling Smalls in the Washington Post.

However, in the month leading up to the union election at LDJ5, Smalls as union president, only showed up twice at the plant gates. 

The result was a disaster; the Amazon Labor Union lost 618 votes against unionizing and 380 in favor. Organizers complained that Small’s focus on high-profile media events instead of organizing hurt the drive. 

In October, the Amazon Labor Union would lose another union election at the Albany warehouse, again by a 2-to-1 margin. Later in October, workers in California organizing with the Amazon Labor Union would withdraw their request for a union vote, fearful that once again, they would lose badly as Amazon Labor Union had done in two previous elections. 

Some workers who have attempted to organize with the Amazon Labor Union say that Smalls’ top-down leadership style has made the union dysfunctional. Activists complain that the union still needs to ratify a constitution, making it difficult for rank-and-file members to have a say in the union’s functioning. 

“It’s really become a personality cult,” says Littrell. “The union is governed by a small group of people loyal to Chris, who seem more concerned about partying sometimes than organizing.” 

Over months, Payday Report attempted to interview Small about the criticism against him, once even hanging out with Smalls at a penthouse suite hotel party during the Netroots Nation convention hosted in Pittsburgh last August. Throughout several days of the convention, I bumped into Smalls at parties and repeatedly tried to schedule an interview with Payday Report. 

While Smalls was eager to discuss my hometown Pittsburgh and my foster dog Cinder, he clammed up when I attempted to discuss internal union issues. 

During the Netroots Nation convention in Pittsburgh last August, Littrell was fired from Amazon. On the same day, I happened to see Smalls at a party during the Netroots Nation convention at a rooftop bar in Pittsburgh. I asked Smalls about Littrell firing, and he stopped speaking and drifted away. 

Repeated attempts to contact Smalls for comment on this article were unanswered. 

While Matt Littrell was disappointed by Amazon Labor Union abandoning their organizing drive, he’s feeling upbeat and optimistic that the National Labor Relations Board will order his reinstatement. He plans to keep organizing and pushing to organize the Amazon facility in Campbellsville, Kentucky. 

However, this time Littrell says he will be doing things differently. 

“We won’t be organizing again with Amazon Labor Union, not after how they abandoned us,” says Littrell

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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