Leaders of Amazon's National Labor Movement Give Advice to Northern Kentucky Air Hub Employees: "Be Creative"

ALU president Chris Smalls tells CityBeat the union organizers at KCVG are "way ahead" of where the Staten Island warehouse was in the beginning of their historic union campaign.

Mar 27, 2023 at 2:26 pm
click to enlarge Amazon Labor Union Chris Smalls addresses a crowd of KCVG workers and supporters during a March 18 rally outside Hebron, Kentucky's Amazon Air Hub. - Photo: Aidan Mahoney
Photo: Aidan Mahoney
Amazon Labor Union Chris Smalls addresses a crowd of KCVG workers and supporters during a March 18 rally outside Hebron, Kentucky's Amazon Air Hub.

The effort to unionize a local Amazon facility has gone national for the second weekend in a row. Veteran Amazon organizers from New York have a plan to keep the momentum going in Kentucky.

Amazon workers from Northern Kentucky traveled to Seattle on Saturday, March 25 to stand at the steps of the mega-company's headquarters and demand higher pay for the workers at KCVG, Amazon's largest Air Hub facility in the world, located 13 miles south of Cincinnati in Hebron, Kentucky. The weekend prior on March 18, organizers held a rally at the Air Hub to announce a partnership with the national Amazon Labor Union (ALU) and a card-authorization campaign that brings KCVG one step closer to a formal union election.
KCVG organizers are demanding a $30 hourly wage for all of the Air Hub's 4,000 employees, as well as 180 hours of paid time off and union representation at disciplinary hearings. KCVG is the first Air Hub to publicly organize in the country.

ALU president Chris Smalls and vice president Derrick Palmer led the first-ever successful union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, which voted to formally unionize in April 2022. While Amazon continues to fight the win in court, Smalls and Palmer are helping Amazon facilities to strengthen their union drives across the U.S.

CityBeat spoke with Smalls and Palmer about what KCVG needs to do to make it as far as Staten Island did in 2022.

Q: How does the ALU help a local Amazon union drive?

Palmer: The ALU is expanding. Kentucky was another shop that’s interested in partnering up. What we like to do when we launch a campaign, we like to go out there to whatever site they’re setting up shop at and pass out cards, amplify what they have going on out there through social media, through the newspapers, whatever. We want to support them.

Q: What is your assessment of the KCVG union effort so far? How are they doing?

 I’m very impressed. They are way ahead of where we were when we started our campaign. They definitely did their homework and their research on what it takes to even get started. When we started our campaign we didn’t have nowhere near the resources they have or the support, so they’re already ten steps ahead of us. They have a headstart with a strong committee already with inside and outside support, which is great to have that community support. Their demands are straightforward and clear, they have a strategy and a good plan.”

Q: KCVG is the first Amazon Air Hub in the country to begin union organizing. Does the ALU need to take a different approach to union efforts for an Air Hub versus a typical Amazon warehouse?

Palmer: It’s pretty similar, but that’s why we’re going out there, to understand the dynamics of what’s going on. The workers, the ones who are actually working at the Air Hub, are the experts. We’re learning.

Smalls: There’s nothing in the Air Hub that you have to go to school for, the workers coming in there are still entry level, meaning that they have to get trained properly by someone else who also is entry level. It’s not managers that are training them, I guarantee that. Almost every job that Amazon provides is entry level, which is always trainable and the issues are really related because of the type of system that Amazon has. Most of it is ran off of metrics, it’s all numbers, and it’s always putting productivity above people.

Q: How could organizers at KCVG improve their union campaign?

Smalls: One area where I told them they could improve upon is to build a committee that’s willing to organize for the night shift. Without getting to the night shift it’s going to be very difficult to win the campaign. I worked the night shift [at Staten Island] for quite a while and most of the issues on night shift are ignored because there’s less management in the building, less leadership, so workers really run the building at night. A lot of the workers on night shift go through a lot of issues because their commute is different, their hours are different and they have less leadership, so their hardships are a lot more strenuous. If they can win the night shift, they win the campaign. I guarantee it.

Q: How important is it to have the support of local politicians during a union campaign?

Palmer: At the beginning of our union campaign we reached out to local officials, but people didn’t really take it seriously. We didn’t really get that support until after we won the election, that’s when we got the support. There are politicians that do support unions, you just have to really make sure they’re there for the workers and not just there to make themselves look like they care for the workers.

Smalls: We don’t want to put ourselves in a category, because we understand that not all Amazon workers are on the left or on the right. We don’t know what they are because they come from different places all over the country, all over the world. We’re talking about Kentucky, which we already know is a conservative state, it’s a Right to Work state, we can’t go in there with an agenda that’s political, we have to keep the issues work-related.

Q: What kind of messaging can union organizers at KCVG expect from Amazon leadership based on how Amazon responded to the union campaign in Staten Island?

Palmer: We know Amazon is going to bust out the union-busting playbook. It’s the same playbook, just at the Air Hub. They’ll probably be a little more aggressive since they know it’s actually possible for workers to actually unionize because of the workers in Staten Island. I do expect them to go a little harder, but it will be the same playbook. 

Smalls: Amazon’s goal is to divide and conquer. To put fear in the workers, intimidate the workers, and put these messages out there to create doubt, and that little bit of doubt is all they need to convince workers not to engage with us. By putting messages out there saying ‘don’t talk to people outside,’ you’re going to think that everybody outside is an enemy now.

Q: What if a KCVG employee sides with Amazon? How does the ALU recommend union organizers talk to those employees?

Smalls: I told the KCVG organizers, some people are going to go through this honeymoon phase when they first get a job at Amazon. It’s their main source of income for a lot of people, so they’re going to go with the company at first because they don’t know any better, and you can’t blame them for that.

Palmer: Some are inspired but still discouraged. You can’t just apply pressure to get them to sign a union authorization card as soon as you see them, you have to develop a relationship with them, ask them how their day is, you gotta really understand what their issue is working with Amazon, because every worker has one. 

Q: What advice have you given the KCVG organizers based on the success you had unionizing the Staten Island warehouse?

Palmer: Be creative with your approach. One thing that I feel like separates us from established unions is that we’re the workers organizing on the inside. We had barbecues, we passed out ALU t-shirts, we were organizing in the shop on break times, it’s just really about being creative. It might not be the exact same thing, they might not be able to have barbecues, but they still need to be creative in their approach.

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