A Homeless Amazon Worker Tried to Organize a Union. Then Amazon Fired Him.

Daequan Smith loved working at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island. After he started organizing with the Amazon Labor Union, he found himself out of a job.

Amir Khafagy   ·   November 23, 2021
Amazon Labor Union organizer Chris Smalls and labor attorney Seth Goldstein sit outside Amazon's Staten Island campus. |

Since August, 25-year-old Daequan Smith has traveled most days from a homeless shelter in the Bronx to Amazon's fulfillment center on Staten Island, where he worked unloading and sorting products. The trip required him to travel on the 4 or 5 train from the Bronx to lower Manhattan, cross New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry, and ride the S40 bus to its last stop in Bloomfield, the home of Amazon’s sprawling Staten Island campus. All in all, it could take Smith up to three hours to make the trip.

Smith no longer makes the commute. In late October, he was suddenly fired from Amazon with little explanation. The Amazon Labor Union, an independent group of Amazon warehouse workers trying to build a labor union on the company’s Staten Island campus, has filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Smith’s termination was retaliation for his outspoken support of the ALU’s union drive. 

Involuntary Termination

Smith first learned about Amazon from the company’s ubiquitous online recruitment ads.

At the time, he was homeless and had recently finished a four-and-half-year prison sentence for a robbery he participated in as a teenager. He had a six-year-old son to support and a job picking up trash on NYCHA properties, part of a prison re-entry program. He wanted to turn his life around, and Amazon, with its 401k plan, health care, and living wage, seemed the perfect opportunity.

“Amazon was the best move for me,” Smith told New York Focus. “It paid a better rate, better benefits, and everything.”

During his second week at Amazon, Smith was approached by workers involved in organizing the Amazon Labor Union. Although Smith loved his job, he thought there were things that could be improved. In particular, he said, he was concerned about the warehouse’s extremely rapid pace of work and lack of breaks.

Beyond that, he said, the union gave him a chance to meet new workers in the warehouse and to be part of a growing movement. “I really didn't know too many people so I was always happy that someone spoke to me,” he said. “What they said just really made sense to me.”

Daequan Smith holds up his Amazon warehouse badge. Smith began working at Amazon from August until he was suddenly fired in November.

Smith threw himself into labor organizing with the zeal of a convert, enthusiastically volunteering to post pro-union flyers and meet with potential new recruits. Within a relatively short time, he became known as an outspoken organizer in warehouse DYY6, the newest of the company’s four warehouses in Staten Island. He made no attempt to hide his support of the union drive, often coming to work wearing a pro-union shirt and openly encouraging fellow workers to sign union cards.

Over time, Smith said, he began to notice increasing hostility from his supervisor.

“One day I’m working extra hard and the supervisor just stopped me after I took a quick break and kept saying, ‘Smith, go back to work, go back to work,’” Smith said. “I’m thinking, I’m over here, hot, about to faint, working extra hard.”

Smith believes that his supervisor specifically targeted him, no matter how hard he worked.

“Everyone else working around me was working at their own pace and he was just on me sending me more carts to sort and telling me to work faster,” he said. “I have never done anything to the guy.” 

On October 23, Smith’s supervisor asked to speak to Smith about his performance, he said. Smith refused to meet with him unless another employee was present, and showed his supervisor a card listing his Weingarten rights, the legal protections that guarantee unionized employees the right to union representation during an investigatory interview. 

“I just let him know I had rights and you can’t just talk to me like that, but he just looked at me and laughed at me and laughed at my union card,” Smith said.

After that, Smith said, the supervisor sent him home for the day.

Three days later, Smith found that he could not log into his account on Amazon’s “A to Z” employee app and schedule his next shift. When he contacted tech support, he learned that he was no longer in Amazon’s employee database system. That’s when he began to worry.

He did not hear anything else from Amazon until November 4, he said when he received an email with the subject line “Termination Documents are Available for Review.”

“Dear Daequan (EEID: 110631219): This letter confirms that the date of involuntary termination of your employment with Amazon.com Services LLC is October 29, 2021,” begins the document attached to the email, which New York Focus reviewed.

Smith said that he called the Amazon Resource Center to inquire about his unexpected termination and was told that he was fired due to excessive tardiness and repeated problems filling out his electronic punch card on the app.

Smith does not accept that explanation.

“It’s kinda weird because I don’t mess up my punches, I don’t come in late,” he said. “Something wasn’t adding up.”

Amazon declined to comment on Smith’s case.

Smith and other ALU organizers suspected that the real reason for Smith’s firing was his outspoken advocacy for the union drive.

The day after Smith received the email firing him, the ALU filed an unfair labor practices complaint against Amazon with the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, alleging that Amazon illegally retaliated against Smith for engaging in protected labor activity.

“I think the company is outrageous for firing him for union activities,” said Seth Goldstein, a labor attorney representing the ALU. “We are urging the NLRB to move quickly to put him back to work with an injunction in federal court.”

“[Smith] doesn’t have a bad record,” he added. “He has no disciplinary action against him. [Amazon] is not using progressive discipline. It’s apparent what this is: they are going after him because he’s a union supporter.”

Deja Vu

For Chris Smalls, the most prominent leader of the ALU’s effort to organize the Staten Island warehouse, Smith’s termination feels like deja vu. In 2020, Smalls, then a supervisor at Amazon’s JFK8 facility, was fired by Amazon after organizing a walkout to protest unsafe working conditions during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Smalls believes that Smith's firing, like his own, was retaliatory.

“There was no reason he should have been fired, especially [since] they know Daequan was vocal about the union,” Smalls said.

Smith’s sudden termination occurred during a key point in the Amazon union drive. On October 25, the same week that Smith discovered that he could no longer log into the “A to Z” app, the ALU formally petitioned the NLRB for a union election at Amazon. At the time, Smalls said that more than 2,000 Amazon employees across all four Staten Island warehouses had signed union authorization cards, out of what the union thought were 5,500 employees. That would have exceeded the 30 percent threshold necessary for a union election.

On November 12, the ALU suddenly withdrew its petition for a union election after learning that it had not in fact met the 30% threshold.

Smalls attributed the discrepancy to the high rate of turnover at Amazon warehouses. After months of effort, the ALU had collected more than 2,000 union authorization cards — but many of the employees who signed those union cards had since left the company, he said, significantly decreasing the proportion of current Amazon employees who signed union cards.

Smalls said that he is planning to refile the NLRB petition “in the coming weeks”, once the ALU collects more union authorization cards from current employees. (It’s unclear whether that timeline is feasible: Amazon has said that the Staten Island facilities employ over 9,600 workers, which, if true, would require the union to collect a total of at least 2,900 union cards from current employees.) But he said the labor situation on Amazon’s Staten Island campus has become increasingly tense over the past two weeks, as Amazon has held mandatory anti-union meetings.

Smalls also claimed that Amazon has retained anti-union consultants, including Russell Brown and Melissa Smith of Florida-based Road Warrior Productions, to fight the union drive in Staten Island. Road Warrior Productions was reportedly involved in Amazon’s successful defeat of a union drive earlier this year at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

Asked whether Road Warrior Productions was working with Amazon in Staten Island, Brown told New York Focus he was “contractually obligated to say nothing.”

“A War on Workers”

Goldstein, the union lawyer, described a heavy atmosphere of paranoia and fear at the facility. 

“This is a war on workers,” he said. “When you go to the bathroom you see anti-union flyers. They are telling people if they vote for a union they can’t go to their bosses to present a grievance, which is against the National Labor Relations Act. There’s surveillance. There’s been interrogations.” 

Goldstein framed Smith’s firing as the latest in the company’s long track record of retaliating against employees for workplace activism. 

Last year, Vice reported on leaked documents from Amazon’s Global Security Operations Center revealing the extent to which the company monitors labor movements and unions.

In March, an NLRB investigation into the firing of Queens Amazon warehouse worker and labor leader Jonathan Bailey found that the company illegally interrogated and threatened him. NBC News reported that eight other workers also said "they had been fired, disciplined or retaliated against for protected activity."

A month later, the NLRB found that Amazon had illegally retaliated against Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, who was fired in 2020 for their workplace activism while employed at Amazon's headquarters in Seattle. (Amazon later settled with them for an undisclosed sum.) And in August, an NLRB official recommended that the results of a controversial union election at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama be thrown out, after the agency’s preliminary assessment found evidence that the company had illegally interfered in the election. 

Smalls said that it will be difficult to organize employees once the holiday shopping season gets underway.

“Right now it’s the peak time with mandatory overtime so that’s what we are also up against,” he said. “The fact that workers are tired, exhausted so we gotta make sure we are not adding to that stress.”

But he still plans to try, he said, because he believes that organizing a union is essential to protecting employees from Amazon’s dangerous working conditions. A recent analysis of workplace injury data found that the rate of serious injuries per 100 employees was nearly 80 percent higher at Amazon than at other companies employing warehouse workers.

Meanwhile, Smith is trying to get back on his feet. Though still homeless, he has found a new job, working in a FedEx warehouse.

Smith still looks back at his time in Amazon with bittersweet fondness. Never politically active before, he feels he was given a responsibility that has changed his life: once painfully shy, he now finds that he is at ease speaking with new people. 

“Organizing helped me get over my little shyness in approaching people as far as people I don’t know,” he said. “I’m still working on being able to talk to people for a long time. Every day it’s a little progress.”

But Smith still harbors some shame about being fired. He worries that he let the union campaign down by not fighting hard enough to save his job.

“I didn’t want to send a bad vibe to people who might think, ‘Damn, the Amazon union guy didn’t defend himself and stick up for himself the right way,’” he said. “I hope I handled the situation well.”

Amir Khafagy is an award-winning freelance journalist based in New York City. His reporting has been featured in The New Republic, Vice, Bloomberg, The Guardian, The Appeal, Documented, and In These Times. He Is currently working on a book about the union drive… more
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