Lesson of the Day: ‘How Two Best Friends Beat Amazon’

Featured Article: “How Two Best Friends Beat Amazon” by Jodi Kantor and Karen Weise

Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, best friends and workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in New York City, strategically organized the first successful unionization effort of an Amazon warehouse in the United States, one of the most significant labor victories in a generation.

In this lesson, you will learn about how the two friends mobilized fellow workers to unionize. You will think about your own relationship with Amazon, and your opinions on this and other unions. Finally, you will consider the concept of student unions and think about how one in your school or area could help amplify student voice on issues of concern to you and your classmates.

Part 1: Free Write

Have you ever cooperated with a close friend or relative to do something powerful or notable? Maybe you’ve teamed up on a work of art, or thrown a party, organized an outing or started a club or business together. What was powerful about working together?

Even if you’ve never done anything like this, is there someone in your life with whom you feel you could team up to change the world — or, at least, a little corner of it? Who would that be and why?

Part 2: Some Labor Union History

What do you know about unions? Are you, or is anyone in your family, a member of one? What has their experience been like?

For a bit of background, you might watch this two-minute video about the history of the labor movement in the United States.

The video states that unions are on the decline in the United States. How can you see that via the graphs in the article “The US Labor Movement Is Popular, Prominent and Also Shrinking”? What story do these graphs tell?

Part 3: You and Amazon

How do you feel about Amazon? Do you and your family use it regularly? What do you know about how it treats its workers? To what extent do you agree with the Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, who writes that he is a frequent customer yet feels that “it is becoming impossible not to feel icky about shopping at Amazon”?

Read the articleand then answer the following questions:

1. How did Amazon respond when Christian Smalls planned a walkout to protest safety conditions at the fulfillment center where he worked?

2. Why do the writers say that Amazon’s initial response to the walkout may “haunt it for years to come”?

3. According to those interviewed for the article, why was it important that the organizing come from inside of Amazon, instead of from outside labor organizers?

4. “For all their David-versus-Goliath disadvantages, the Staten Island organizers had the cultural moment on their side,” write these three. What does that mean? What helped them succeed?

6. How did Mr. Smalls connect with colleagues during the union effort? What did he and Mr. Palmer do to keep up morale and support their co-workers amid difficult times?

7. What anti-union tactics did Amazon employ? How did workers respond to them?

8. What is your reaction to this article? How do you feel about the union victory now that you have read the details? Why do you think so many have been drawn to a story that has been described as “one of the biggest underdog victories” in recent history?

Is there a student union in your middle or high school? What role does it play in the school community? If not, is there a student government? In general, what opportunities are there for students to collectively voice their opinions?

To see an example of a student union that extends beyond just one high school, take a look at the website of the Philadelphia Student Union, and check out some of its related social media. What is your reaction? What are they fighting for? Which of those issues concern you and your classmates as well?

Whether you are represented by a student union or not, here are some questions you and your classmates might discuss:

  • What issues are important to the students in your school community?

  • If you were to form a student union, or strengthen an existing one, what would you want it to do? What issues would it address? How would it work?

  • What is one thing that you think adults — teachers, administrators, parents — do not understand about teenagers at your school? What would change if they understood?

  • How do you think working together with your peers in a student union could bring about a positive change? What do you think would be difficult?

Additional Teaching and Learning Opportunities

  • Consider the messaging. One way that the Amazon workers organized, kept up morale and connected with others was through social media. Watch some of the videos on the Amazon Labor Union’s TikTok page. What do you notice about the videos’ messages, content and tone? Why do you think they were an effective strategy for the union drive? How did Amazon counter the messages? The article “Mandatory Meetings Reveal Amazon’s Approach to Resisting Unions” details some of those strategies. If you were a worker in the Staten Island warehouse, how do you think you might have voted. Why?

  • Learn about other organizing efforts. Have you heard about other recent union movements? The featured article mentions Starbucks employees who are advertising, and The Times has covered union efforts at museums and an REI store in Manhattan. Choose one article linked in this section to read in its entirety. What is unique about that union effort? Why are workers supportive of it? How has the company responded to the union?

  • Read an Opinion essay and decide how you feel about unions. In the essay, “The People, United, Must Fight Hard or Be Defeated,” Binyamin Appelbaum, a member of The New York Times editorial board, writes about the hope many people feel following the victory at Amazon, but also about the reality of the annual decrease of workers represented by unions in the United States. Mr. Appelbaum discusses the legal barriers that many union members — and would-be union members — face when attempting to form a union and negotiate a contract.

    Read the entire essay and reflect on Mr. Appelbaum’s arguments. Do you believe that unions are necessary? Why? What do you think should be done to ensure workers have the opportunity to organize and negotiate a contract if they desire?

Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.

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