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The Amazon Labor Union Threw a Killer Holiday Party

Following this year's historic win, the union gave workers the party that Amazon wouldn't.

5:04 PM EST on December 19, 2022

(Molly Osberg/Hell Gate)

The Kings Theater, a French Baroque concert hall constructed in 1929, is among the most majestic venues in Brooklyn: In the lobby, 83-foot-high mahogany walls curve into a gilded ceiling punctuated by massive chandeliers. Some of the furniture was built in Paris for the court of Napoleon III. It’s where vaudeville orchestras played in the '30s, and where Eric Adams would have been inaugurated had a COVID surge not stymied his plans. And on Monday night, it hosted the first Amazon Labor Union holiday party, a festive rebuttal to the lack of holiday cheer typically afforded people who do so-called essential work. 

"When I was working on a cruise line they gave us a half-cooked holiday meal," said one ALU organizer to the crowd assembled in the lobby under clubby red-and-blue lights. "But that hundred mil Jeff Bezos gave away? We deserve some of that." Chris Smalls, working the room in a floor-length coat printed with tigers, said the event was a token of appreciation for the workers who'd made this year's victory possible. "This is what we do, we take care of each other," he said, adding, "I can tell you, as a five-year Amazon employee, I never had a holiday party." Now, the union was making up for lost time. 

Chris Smalls speaks to the assembled crowd. (Molly Osberg/Hell Gate)

The party, funded by the union and assisted by donations from vendors, was far from the grim backroom snack break that often constitutes a holiday party for workers making an hourly wage. Over the course of the evening, a few hundred union members, organizers, and sympathetic labor activists grazed from a 20-foot-long buffet table and crowded around the three open bars. (As one grinning bartender told me, this was by far the most exciting event he'd worked all year; he's a big fan of what ALU has done.) State Senator Jessica Ramos and an SEIU member danced salsa to a steel drum band playing songs from Trinidadian composers and Stevie Wonder covers; a dj-slash-weed-vendor who calls himself "New York's Number One Street Activist" shared a table with a handful of workers from Amazon’s Staten Island JFK8 warehouse, all complaining about work and eating wings. 

Reactions to the scene ranged from triumphant to absolutely dumbstruck: "I didn't expect it to be this nice," said Abed Samara, who works as a packer at another warehouse and was invited by his cousin, who is a member of the ALU. "I expected it to be just, like, an Amazon event. Over there, it's so boring." This party, he was eager to impress, was far superior; clearly, people at his location didn't really know what the union was up to, he told this party reporter.

Jimmy Bard, a longtime Amazon employee at the unionized Staten Island location, came directly from his 12-hour shift in his neon safety vest—it was an intentional choice not to change for the party, he said. He was representing himself as a worker first. "Obviously I'm having a very good time," he said, raising his free beer. Bard was thrilled with the reputation of his union. (Once, he said, he was on the train complaining about work and a woman, overhearing him, asked if he knew about ALU.) Bard spoke in conspiratorial tones about the recent failed unionization vote at an Amazon warehouse in Albany, but declined to elaborate. Maybe, he said, he'd tell me about the nefarious agents who'd forced the no vote when he was properly drunk.   

Claudia Asterman, a member of the ALU, attended the party with her daughter; both were decked in sequin dresses and spindly heels. Asterman had worked at Amazon that day, she said, and would be back there tomorrow, but tonight was about workers getting what they deserve; it was the kind of party that a "company that only cares about profits" certainly wouldn’t provide. "Ever since I started at Amazon in 2019," she said, "I knew they didn't give nothing to the workers. Little did I realize that I'd become part of a union." Shortly after, our interview was interrupted when the event photographer approached to dance with Asterman's daughter, and the trio returned to the floor.  

Around 9 p.m., a knot of organizers took the stage and delivered brief remarks over the muted sounds of steel drums. "Y'all deserve this," said Smalls, noting that the ALU-organized warehouse had recently secured workers' compensation insurance for employees. The crowd erupted in veritable screams. Organizer Michelle Valentin Nieves shouted out her phone number to encourage Amazon employees to reach out: "We're going to need to fight inside the warehouse," she said. The crowd chanted, "If we don’t get it, shut it down," before dispersing to drink and dance. By 10 p.m., the expansive lobby was packed with partygoers in glittering jackets and work boots. The venue, Smalls announced, had donated another hour so the party could go past midnight. 

When a car arrived to take me home, the driver noted the marquee on the historic theater announcing the Amazon Labor Union's holiday party. He wanted to know if I'd gone inside, and if I'd talked to the people who’d organized the first union at one of the largest and most notorious retailers on earth. We're living in an era where society is skewed towards the bosses, he told me, and we needed more organizations like the ALU. He was, naturally, very excited for the next day's Uber strike.

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