Amazon Labor Union Bleeds Money as Workers Turn on Founder Who Praised Hamas

Joe Biden meets with Christian Smalls (C), other labor leaders (Twitter)
April 9, 2024

The Amazon Labor Union burst onto the scene in 2021 with support from leading progressives and an endorsement from President Joe Biden. But the group could soon lose that prime placement as it grapples with financial troubles and controversy surrounding its founder.

The union had just $28,354 cash on hand at the end of last year, down from $95,437 in 2022, according to its latest filing with the Department of Labor. The union began 2023 with $118,463 in net assets, but ended up deeply in debt, with negative $48,006 in net assets. It has $43,581 in bills more than three months past due, including $12,098 owed to its landlord.

The financial hemorrhaging comes as union founder Christian Smalls faces blowback for his pro-Hamas rhetoric and criticism from union workers who sued Smalls last year over his alleged "scheme to suppress democratic dissent" by blocking votes for union leadership.

It's a dramatic fall for an organization that, according to the New York Times, had accomplished "one of the biggest victories for organized labor in a generation" when it organized workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in March 2022. Early union rallies featured appearances from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), with Sanders inviting Smalls to testify at a hearing for the Senate Banking Committee. In 2022, Biden embraced Smalls during a White House visit, saying the labor leader was "my kind of trouble."

But the union has failed to build on its early success, losing votes to organize two other Amazon warehouses. The union has reportedly been hobbled by infighting, with union organizers frustrated by Smalls's leadership style, inexperience at organizing workers, and penchant for self-promotion.

Smalls insisted last year that the union was financially sound, though he acknowledged that fundraising could be erratic. He admitted that paychecks to union workers could be late at times because the group's treasurer had a day job. Union officials have more recently acknowledged the union is in jeopardy, but the financial disclosure reveals for the first time the extent of the group's bleak financial picture.

And that could play a factor into an upcoming leadership election. Union workers at a Staten Island warehouse voted last month to hold a leadership vote, overriding Smalls's efforts to block the vote.

The union has no dues-paying members, according to the latest disclosure, forcing it to rely almost entirely on outside donations to pay its bills and organize workers. The union spent $736,981 on legal services, salaries, and general overhead, but it took in just around $670,000. The bulk of its revenues—$425,000—came from just one group, the International Commission for Labor Rights.

The union received $857,000 in donations in 2022, with contributions from the American Federation of Teachers ($250,000), through a GoFundMe fundraiser ($200,000), progressive pundit Hasan Piker ($177,100), and donations from other labor unions, disclosures show.

Though progressive lawmakers hailed the union after its organization drive, Sanders is the only member of Congress to have donated to the union, with his campaign committee writing a $10,000 check in June 2022.

According to its 2023 filing, the union paid "lifestyle" clothing brand Koolforlife $14,720 to print union t-shirts. That was nearly as much as the $18,887 the union paid its former director of organizing, Evangeline Byars. The union reported an expenditure of $6,960 on an "organizing and representation event" at Whiskey Hideaway, a Staten Island cocktail bar.