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Labor

March 23, 2024

American Labor Union founder Chris Smalls and Claremont organizers speak at ‘Americonned’ screening and panel

“I've never been fired from my job ever in my life until Amazon. And I was a great employee. So for them to fire me, because I spoke up one time, five years, I gave blood, sweat, and tears I gave you [sic]. And that woke me up,” Smalls told the audience.

Undercurrents staff

On Feb. 28, Pomona College academic departments and the Claremont Students Workers Alliance (CSWA) hosted a screening of the documentary “Americonned.” The documentary illustrated American income and class inequality, alongside Chris Small’s fight for the first successful labor union for Amazon workers.

“Americonned” creates a call to action to normalize organized labor by centering around the experiences of various working-class individuals; it concludes with the unionization of Amazon JFK8 warehouse workers, the first of its kind for any Amazon workers recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.

The screening was followed by a panel discussion with Chris Smalls, accompanied by film director Sean Claffey, Pomona College shop steward Rolando Araiza, and Pitzer College shop steward José Ochoa. 

According to the documentary, Smalls was introduced to unionization after being fired for walking out of Amazon. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed Amazon’s ambivalency to worker safety protocols. After contracting COVID-19 without hearing back from HR, he staged a walkout only to find himself fired a mere handful of hours later. In response, Smalls founded The Congress of Essential Workers (TCOEW), which sought to campaign for better wages and working conditions for workers.

Smalls then went on to establish the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which began the fight to unionize Amazon warehouse workers. In a leaked memo involving Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s general counsel David Zapolsky referred to Smalls as “not smart or articulate,” and pushed to make him the “face of the entire union/organizing movement.” 

After two years of fighting against Amazon and its heavy union busting campaigns, workers at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island voted 2654-2131 in favor of the union’s creation, thus becoming the first ever unionized Amazon workers on Apr. 1, 2022.

In their respective institutions at the Claremont Colleges, Araiza and Ochoa serve as union representatives and organizers, providing greater job security for other workers there.

Araiza’s first introduction to the concept of unionizing came when he received his first paycheck at Pomona. That was when he found out that he had made more than his mother ever did in 11 years. This realization, as he said to the audience, was what “made [him] want to fight.”

“So I started organizing [when] I was like 19 years old,” Araiza said at the panel. “I had the opportunity to work there in the summer and realized how it was a place where they, where they take advantage of individuals. And when I had the opportunity here to change that, I jumped out. And that was the one of the reasons why I really wanted to, because, it was put in my head that if we can do changes here in our workplace, there will be some trickle effect around this.”

In 2011, however, following a whistleblower on unionization efforts by Pomona workers, the college decided to perform a self-audit document check and fired all but two organizing members. However, this massive release of employees only demonstrated the resiliency of labor organizing efforts and the endurance of workers to continue fighting.

“Eventually we got to a point where, you know, we’re over 10 years with the union here,” Araiza continued. “And we just finished our fourth contract, and it’s one of our greatest, greatest contracts that we have so far.” On Jan. 18, 2023, Pomona dining workers successfully negotiated for a four-year contract stipulating a cumulative $7.50 raise under representation by the labor union UNITE HERE! Local 11.

At Pitzer, Ochoa began organizing labor campaigns and union activity after a Pitzer HR team instated before the pandemic altered its policies to hire new workers for only 10 months. Not only was job security unsatisfactory, wage increases were also dismal, numbering at around 2 percent per year.

“I was scared at the beginning, to be honest,” Ochoa said to the audience. “I didn’t want to, it was my own income. But, once I started learning, reading books, I educated myself about the union, I started educating my coworker about it. And little by little, one by one [we] started campaigning. So like that, we just won our first contract.” Last year, Pitzer dining and facilities workers won an hourly $7.50 pay increase and 95% coverage of health, dental, and vision insurance costs effective Sep. 4, 2023.

During the panel discussion, Indira Greif PZ ‘23 asked Smalls why he had recently given a strong statement of solidarity with Palestinians and advocated for a ceasefire. He responded by detailing his experience in Berlin, Germany, where he witnessed firsthand the brutality and censorship the German police demonstrated against Palestinians. Following his time in Berlin, he then decided to speak out.

“And what I saw, I’ve never seen in my life, not here in America, the type of things they were doing to people that were protesting,” Smalls recounted to the audience. “You can’t say free Palestine, you can’t even have your flag. They were raiding the whole community, arresting children right in front of us, dragging them away.”

Smalls then reminded the audience of the power that labor leaders and unions hold in showing solidarity with broader global issues and opposing political injustices.

“I’ve been proud that my union stepped over and they went to put out that statement,” he mentioned. “You got these unions doing this shit, ’cause once again, you can’t call ceasefire and fucking endorse Joe Biden, right?” 

On Jan. 24, following President Joe Biden’s open support for an agreement between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Big Three automobile manufacturers (Ford, General Motors, Stellantis) on a new contract for UAW members, the UAW publicly endorsed Biden’s reelection bid for the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

Bela De Jesús PO ’26 was astonished by the film’s presentation of the U.S. wealth gap.

“‘Americonned’ summarized economic injustice in America very well and I learned about the history of the U.S. economy,” De Jesús told Undercurrents. “Some of the statistics stated in the film were so jarring and put into perspective how organizing directly counteracts these horrific systems.”

The panelists urged audience members to organize in order to combat the tactics of corporations and implement positive change for workers’ rights.

“[Pomona] College … they hate when I say this, but they’re a company just like Amazon company, just like Walmart company,” Araiza said at the panel. “They will hire the same union-buster that they do, law firms. It is the same guys.”

“I’ve never been fired from my job ever in my life until Amazon. And I was a great employee. So for them to fire me, because I spoke up one time, five years, I gave blood, sweat, and tears I gave you [sic]. And that woke me up,” Smalls told the audience. “When I was fired from Amazon in the middle of the pandemic, I lost everything … And we’re [quarantined], so I can’t get a job. So the only thing I had to do was organize. So that’s my advice to anybody. Don’t quit your job. Organize.”

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Thanks for reading Undercurrents

Undercurrents reports on labor, Palestine liberation, prison abolition and other community organizing at and around the Claremont Colleges.

Issue 1 / Spring 2023

Setting the Standard

How Pomona workers won a historic $25 minimum wage; a new union in Claremont; Tony Hoang on organizing

Read issue 1