Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer, who organized the first union for Amazon workers at a Staten Island warehouse, spoke about their experience at a Monday event, as part of the College of Industrial and Labor Relations’ “Union Days” series.
The event was held in Ives Hall, where attendees packed into the lecture hall. Online attendance through Zoom was also available.
Union Days is a series of events organized by the ILR Worker Institute and co-sponsored by People’s Organizing Collective, Cornell Graduate Labor Organization, the ILR Graduate Student Association, ILR Office of Career Services, the Cornell Law School, the Cornell Center for the Study of Inequality, the law and society minor, the Cornell Farmworker program, and the Cornell chapter of the American Association of University Professors. The series is part of the School of Industrial Labor Relations initiative that runs every spring.
According to, Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, labor and employment law, who is the Worker Institute academic director, the Institute has a theme for each year’s presentations. Lieberwitz added that this year’s theme is ‘Talking Union,’ because of increasing national interest in unions from workers at big businesses like Starbucks and Google. Additionally, Lieberwitz spoke on the relevance of labor organizing on college campuses.
“There has been an upsurge in unions and organizing and that is true in universities across the country as well, where there has been a real increase in interest in organizing among graduate employees and there has been a lot more collective bargaining and even strikes,” Lieberwitz said.
Some students were looking forward to hearing the perspectives of labor leaders. Sebastian Young ’26 said he attended the event because he hopes to pursue a career in labor organizing.
“I hope to gain insight in how you can unify people and create a movement,” Young said. “Especially coming out of COVID-19, it has been very difficult, because everyone has been separated from one another.”
The event began with introductions by Dean Alexander Colvin and Alejandra Quintero grad, followed by speeches from Smalls and Palmer.
Smalls and Palmer received national attention after they successfully initiated a series of actions — including a walkout and a GoFundMe campaign — to create the first Amazon union in April 2022 at an Staten Island warehouse known as JFK8, which serves 8,000 workers.
After the introduction, Smalls gave a speech in which he explained that he got involved with organizing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his concerns for his fellow workers’ health and lack of action from Amazon.
“I went to human resources the first day cases were reported in this country,” Smalls said. “Their answer was, ‘Follow the [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines.”
Smalls also stressed the importance of community organizing and the value of people in leading a labor movement against a corporation like Amazon.
“The people [were] the only way to beat Amazon, a trillion dollar company,” Smalls said. “It wasn’t money. It wasn’t the support of other established unions [that have] been around for hundreds of years. It wasn’t the support of politicians or celebrities. It was workers having several conversations for over 300 days.”
Afterwards, Palmer also delivered a speech, in which he reflected on the failures of the first attempts to unionize at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama in 2021. He attributed this lack of success to poor communication and coordination among workers.
“What we noticed when we were out [in Alabama, and] we were talking to those workers… they didn’t really know about the unions,” Palmer said. “They didn’t know about the union drive that [was] happening in their building. Other workers were saying they didn’t know, but they [just] didn’t want to get involved.”
Palmer also spoke about the challenges of running a movement against a large company and the importance of strategy and leadership for the success of a labor movement.
“Understand that organizing against Amazon is not just, ‘Go out there and just start organizing.’ You have to really have a game plan,” Palmer said. “You’ve got to be confrontational with union busters, you’ve got to be in the workers’ faces empowering them, telling them how having a union can really change the workforce.”
The event then had a Q&A session in which members of the audience asked Smalls and Palmer questions that ranged from whether or not police unions counted as valid unions and asking for advice on how to address disagreement among workers, to their vision for big businesses and the labor movement.
When asked about student work and a recent protest by the Cornell Graduate Students United over demands for higher wages from the University, Smalls offered a message of solidarity and encouragement to students.
“You are seeing that students are realizing their value too. And they go to school full time. They can’t afford housing, they can’t afford basic human things like food and gas and travel and accommodations, so their fight is the same as [the fight] we have,” Smalls said. “This is a different enemy they are battling, but it is the same type of struggle. Workers’ rights is workers’ rights, and students are workers… we have to bridge that gap, and I not only encourage [it, but] I support it.”
After the event, students like Laura Jocelyn ’24, who plans to become a labor lawyer, reflected upon Smalls and Palmers’s words. Jocelyn said she could relate to their stories given she has previous experience with labor organizing.
“My biggest takeaway is that the labor movement is a longhaul fight,” Jocelyn said. “I think as a college student, a lot of us [think in the short term] –– [we] have to get through this week, [we] have to get through this prelim, [we] have to get through our degree –– but this is something that is much larger than just us.”
Lieberwitz expressed her satisfaction with the event and turnout, describing the speakers’ message as relevant and of interest to students.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm for the sort of commitment that Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer have to worker rights, to organizing, to sticking with the good fight for worker rights,” Lieberwitz said. “So, I think their commitment inspires other people, and that is one of the reasons we had that great turnout.”