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Teamsters, Amazon Union Chiefs Rip Retailer in Capitol Debuts

May 5, 2022, 8:27 PM

The tone of the Senate Budget Committee hearing was set before it began when Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, arrived wearing a tri-colored sports jacket emblazoned with a pointed message: “Eat the Rich.”

Without saying a word, Smalls signaled that this wouldn’t be a normal gathering of the Senate Budget Committee—and it wasn’t. Over the next 90 minutes, Smalls and Teamsters President Sean O’Brien—two new labor leaders who have energized the left—used their first appearances on Capitol Hill to excoriate Amazon, energize their supporters, and argue with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The hearing underscored how O’Brien and Smalls, representatives of a new, bellicose generation of union activists, plan to bend Washington to their will rather than moderate their message.

“In a Congress dominated by corporate lobbyists and wealthy campaign contributors, the idea that we would actually hearing from the working class of this country is, in fact, radical,” said committee chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), responding to criticism from the top Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.). “But I make no apologies for that.”

Even in an era of heightened partisanship, their testimonies were unusually blunt. O’Brien called Amazon an “organized crime syndicate”—redirecting a main criticism of his own union, which in 2020 emerged from 30 years of federal oversight for its past ties to the mob. Smalls accused Amazon of firing a worker for being Black, and of using the police to intimidate demonstrators at its Staten Island warehouse where his union recently won a landmark vote.

“The way they treat workers is criminal,” O’Brien said in an interview after the hearing. “If anybody else treated anybody like that in society, in a neighborhood, or anywhere else, they’d be put in jail.”

O’Brien and Smalls might not seem alike at first, but their views on the working class and meteoric rise to prominence are similar. After leading a group of internal activists seeking to reform the Teamsters, O’Brien, longtime leader of the union’s Boston local, last year won a landslide victory over the hand-picked successor of former President James P. Hoffa. He will lead a nationwide effort to organize Amazon warehouses with support from the AFL-CIO.

Smalls, after being fired by Amazon in 2020, last month led the first U.S. union to organize an Amazon warehouse, an accomplishment that had eluded established unions.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Workers’ Issue

Both men went after Graham in the hearing, at times interrupting and arguing with the veteran lawmaker. Smalls immediately pushed back on Graham’s opening remarks about the hearing being a political stunt show, then traded barbs with him over the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a large pro-union bill that remains stalled in the Senate.

“There is a process that’s not working,” Smalls said, after Graham asked whether he had filed a complaint about mistreatment at Amazon.

“OK, well that’s your opinion,” Graham said.

“That’s a fact,” Smalls replied.

“It’s in your best interest to realize that it’s not a left or right thing, it’s not a Democrat or Republican thing, it’s a workers thing. It’s a workers issue, and we’re the ones that are suffering in the corporations that you’re talking about, in the businesses that you’re talking about, in the warehouses that you’re talking about,” Smalls said in response to Graham’s opening statement. “And you should listen, because we do represent your constituents as well.”

Beyond Federal Contracting

The hearing sought to examine why Amazon and other large companies should retain federal contracts after they’ve violated labor laws. But turned into a broader airing of grievances against that made even some Democrats uncomfortable.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) pushed back on O’Brien’s crime syndicate remark, noting that Amazon employs a million people and is building a second headquarters in Northern Virginia with the support of local Democratic leaders.

“I don’t think Amazon is an organized crime syndicate,” Kaine said.

“It definitely is, the way they treat their workers, sir, with all due respect,” O’Brien interrupted.

It was the kind of talk unusual to hear in the Senate—and exactly what O’Brien was going for.

“I hope I made a big splash,” he said after the hearing.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com; Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Genevieve Douglas at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com