Last month, Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls outwitted Fox News host Tucker Carlson on his own show. On Thursday, Smalls once again successfully jousted with a prominent conservative. This time he effectively countered Sen. Lindsey Graham’s inane defense of Amazon’s business practices during a Senate hearing. In the process, Smalls made yet another powerful case for why organized labor is essential to realizing freedom in America.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, held a hearing intended to challenge Amazon’s status as a major contractor for the U.S. government because of its brutal labor practices.
At the hearing's opening, Graham, R-S.C., the ranking member on the committee, railed against the very idea of the hearing. “This is very dangerous,” Graham said. “You can have oversight hearings all you like, but you’ve determined Amazon is a piece of crap company. That’s your political bias.”
The most powerful remarks came when Smalls linked the idea of labor unions to freedom.
"Every time I turn around, you're having a hearing about 'anybody who makes money is bad,'" Graham told Sanders at another point.
But Smalls, a fired Amazon employee who led the first successful effort to unionize one of its warehouses, dodged Graham’s distraction tactics and pointed out that the success of a company cannot be separated from its workers.
Smalls began his opening statement by addressing Graham.
“You forgot that the people are the ones who make these companies operate, and that we're not protected,” he said. “And that the process for when we hold these companies accountable is not working for us, then that's the reason why we're here today. That's the reason why I'm here to represent the workers who make these companies go.”
During his remarks, Smalls pointed out how Amazon has persistently broken the law in its attempt to squash unionization efforts by doing things such as firing organizing workers. (Amazon has denied these accusations even after, for example, a judge ruled that it must reinstate a fired worker.) Smalls also said corporations like Amazon use the slowness of the legal process to their advantage when trying to intimidate workers. “They know that breaking the law won’t be resolved during election campaigns,” Smalls said. Smalls himself was fired after organizing a walkout for safer working conditions in the early stages of the pandemic. (Amazon said Smalls violated social distancing protocols.)
Smalls made his case even stronger when he pivoted from his response to Graham to a broader call for a working-class movement that pierces through political polarization.
“I think that it's in your best interest to realize that it's not a left or right thing. It's not a Democratic or Republican thing. It's a workers thing,” Smalls said. “And we are the ones that are suffering in the corporations that you're talking about, and the businesses that you're talking about, in the warehouses that you're talking about.”
“You should listen, because we do represent your constituents as well,” he added.
The most powerful remarks came when Smalls linked the idea of labor unions to freedom. “The notion that people united in this democracy will outmatch tyranny is the oldest American ideal,” he said.
Graham, a partisan with hardline conservative views, might not have been moved. But Smalls’ comments, combined with his impressive performance during an appearance on Carlson’s show, continue to exemplify a well-focused vision for a mass workers’ movement.
Later that day, Smalls met with President Joe Biden. It's a positive sign that the president did a photo-op with Smalls as a gesture of solidarity with organized labor. But Biden should also walk the walk, and do more to fulfill his pledge to refuse to set up federal contracts with union-busters. At a time when the Democratic Party is struggling to keep working-class voters within its ranks, it should be learning from Smalls' effective communication style, and paying closer attention to Smalls’ ideas and the interests he represents.