It is often said that in times of crisis, people and nations show their true colors. Blurry lines sharpen as the good sarmatians and swindlers reveal themselves. Amid the global pandemic, the e-commerce giant Amazon has also faced a reckoning. After workers in his Staten Island warehouse fell ill, Chris Smalls organized a walkout on March 30 to close the building for sanitation. Over the past month, hundreds of Amazon workers across the country have gone on strike to demand safer working conditions. The College Hill Independent had the opportunity to speak to some of these workers, including Smalls.
While publicly hailing their warehouse workers’ bravery for continuing to work, Amazon fired Smalls. Leaked notes from a meeting of Amazon leadership, including CEO Jeff Bezos, uncovered a plan to smear Smalls’ reputation. Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky wrote of Smalls, “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.” The disparity between Amazon’s public and private comments illustrate a culture in which employee safety, including the possibility of contracting and dying from COVID-19, is secondary to reputation and profits.
Weeks before employees halted work and walked out of Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse on March 30, Chris Smalls was already getting worried. Smalls, an assistant manager, had worked for Amazon for five years and oversaw 60 to 100 ‘pickers,’ workers who pick goods off of shelves and place them on conveyor belts for shipping. His job included “making sure [his associates] are safe, first and foremost.” At the beginning of March, employees began complaining to Smalls about the lack of cleaning supplies, masks, and gloves. Soon, people fell sick. “Certain employees couldn’t finish their tasks. Vomiting, dizzy, fatigued—I’ve seen it all,” Smalls told the Independent, “Domino effect, one by one. It was a very scary situation.”
Because Smalls was afraid for his own well-being, he took time off of work, relying on money from his 401(k) to get by. When he returned, the situation had gone from bad to worse. His colleague Barbara Chandler tested positive for the coronavirus but was advised by human resources to keep the news private. After finding out about the positive case, Smalls raised his worries to HR. He urged the factory to shut down to allow workers to quarantine for 14 days. Instead, his concerns were “swept under the rug.”
Frustrated by the lack of response from managers, Smalls decided to take action into his own hands by planning a walk out. For Smalls, it was initially difficult to convince colleagues to strike. Driven by increasing demand, Amazon is one of the few companies hiring during the epidemic. Over the past month, Amazon hired over 100,000 new associates in the US with plans to bring on 75,000 more. The pace at which Amazon filled its open positions is testament to the precarity of the American labor force. As workers across the country are laid off, many are looking for new sources of income, regardless of the potential health risks. Meanwhile, many currently employed workers cannot afford to go on strike and risk losing their job. “At the time right now, people don’t have any options,” Smalls said, “They don’t have any choice. And the company knows that.”
Despite initial resistance, Smalls continued to engage fellow workers, eventually gaining traction. “I was visible. I was accessible for questions,” Smalls explained, “Me being on a supervisor level and having direct communication with management, people respected that. People believed what I was telling them. When they see a leader, sacrificing, putting their career on the line, there’s got to be some truth to it.” In other words, Smalls led by example. At 12:30 PM on March 30, over 100 workers walked out of the Staten Island warehouse, demanding more safety precautions, paid sick leave, hazard pay, and that the factory close for cleaning.
By the end of the day, Smalls was fired. Amazon accused Smalls of violating safety precautions. After Smalls came into contact with Mrs. Chandler, the worker who contracted the coronavirus, Amazon put Smalls under quarantine and told him to stay away from his co-workers. Amazon claims Smalls was terminated because he returned to the warehouse, violating social distancing guidelines. Smalls disputes Amazon’s motives, questioning why he was the person to be put under quarantine out of the hundreds of workers with whom Mrs. Chandler interacted. “They didn’t even try to quarantine the person she drives to work with every single day,” Smalls said, “What does that tell you right there?” Instead, Smalls argues that the quarantine was a pretense to prevent him from organizing. The right to organize is protected by both New York State and federal law. Labor rights organizations and politicians have since called for investigations into Smalls’ terminations, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
While Smalls chanted and held picket signs in New York, Amazon employees in a Detroit warehouse were being told of a second confirmed coronavirus case within their facility. Fears of contamination compounded existing frustrations over shortage of cleaning supplies and the crowded conditions. Mario Crippen is a ‘stower’ at the Detroit warehouse. He receives items into the warehouse and scans them into the warehouse’s database. Crippen has three young children at home and was worried about their safety should he contract the virus. “On my lunch break, I look at the news and noticed New York was doing a walk out, Crippen told the Independent, “I [wrote] on private Facebook group with my co-workers and said, ‘If New York can do it we can do it too.’”
To spread his message, Crippen distributed pocket-size flyers. “I passed it to people I know, so they could pass it to people they know. And sooner rather than later, the word got around the whole building.” As in New York, workers’ demanded that Amazon close and sanitize the building, stop processing non-essential items, and extend paid sick leave. Soon, the growing movement faced resistance from management.
“The managers found out that we were trying to participate in a walk-out.” said Crippen. “They didn’t know who the ring-leaders were…People were getting intimidated by the managers, saying they were going to get fired if they participated in the walk-out. You are going to lose your job, your benefits, so it’s best you don’t participate.” Crippen reported that while workers were inspired by the defiance of the New York strike, excitement turned to anxiety after learning of Smalls’ subsequent termination. Organizers report that around 40 of the 136 workers on shift walked out on April 1. Amazon insists that there were less than 15. It is anyone’s guess on how many would have participated if not for fear of reprisal.
A third strike, on April 3 and 4 in Chicago, is notable both for its similarities and differences with the two wal-outs that preceded it. The demands and grievances of Chicago workers mirrored those in New York and Detroit. After hearing of two confirmed cases of coronavirus in their facility, workers shouted, “Clean it up! Shut it down!” as they marched outside. However, while Mr. Smalls and Mr. Crippen built support from the ground up, the strike in Chicago relied on existing infrastructure and experience.
In the blistering heat wave that struck Chicago during the summer of 2019, a small group of colleagues gathered to discuss the lack of clean drinking water at the warehouse. On their feet all day, workers often walk 10 to 15 miles in a warehouse that spans two football fields. Amazon has previously received criticism for failing to provide water or air conditioning in warehouses where temperatures exceed 100 degrees. In 2011, Amazon hired paramedics and ambulances to station themselves outside a warehouse in Allenstown, Pennsylvania and treat workers with heat-related injuries, rather than install air conditioning. Although Amazon has since expanded air conditioning in facilities across the country, the warehouse in Chicago was still without A/C when workers delivered a petition for drinking water to managers. Surprised by their employee’s boldness, managers nervously promised to install water lines as soon as possible.
This victory inspired workers to organize into a formal group, DCH1 Amazonians United to address other grievances. (DCH1 is the name of the Chicago warehouse.) Over the past year, DCH1 Amazonians United led the fight for paid time off for part-time and seasonal workers. After months of ignoring their demands, Amazon relented on March 23, allowing all workers to accrue paid time off, to be used for either sick or personal reasons. Proud of their accomplishments, Amazonians United remains skeptical of Amazon's intentions. In a blog post, the group wrote, “Amazon is giving us PTO [paid time off] because they see our movement growing and they want to calm our anger during this Coronavirus Peak by giving us what they already owed us. But Amazon did not ‘give’ us PTO—we took our PTO from Amazon’s greedy hands.” The struggle for PTO built solidarity between workers and fueled animosity towards their employer, enabling DCH1 Amazonians United to react quickly after managers refused to close down the plant.
Throughout the weeks of strikes, Amazon has repeatedly claimed that it is doing everything within its powers to ensure their workers’ health. They state that they are providing safety equipment, setting up sanitizing stations, checking temperatures, instituting social distancing, increasing wages by $2 an hour, and giving those diagnosed with the coronavirus paid sick leave. Smalls says that these measures are insufficient and too late. “They’re being reactive instead of proactive…This is sugarcoating.” He says Amazon only responded when their public image was threatened and without substantially addressing the major grievances. Workers with young children, elderly parents, or underlying health conditions must choose between risking the lives of themselves or their loved one, and a paycheck that puts food on the table. Workers demand that these vulnerable groups be given paid leave as well. As for the $2 raise, Smalls calls it “blood money.”
Equally troubling, the spread of the virus within factories has continued. 10 Detroit workers have become infected, and New York organizers reported that 25 people had tested positive during a second strike at the warehouse on April 6. Amazon only admitted on Tuesday that a manager in its Hawthorne, California warehouse died on March 31 from complications brought on by the coronavirus. Crippen, the worker from Detroit, revealed that Amazon’s safety measures are not implemented in practice—even the basics are not met. “They have put more hand sanitizing stations, but a lot of those stations have not been filled or are completely empty,” Crippen reported, “A lot of doorknobs, handrails, elevators buttons are touched, but I am not seeing them clean on a frequent basis. They say they are supposed to clean these items six times a day. I have a friend who works in the cleaning crew of the building. They say they are short-staffed during the night shift, so those extra measures are not being done.” Additionally, Crippen told the Independent, the social distancing rules Amazon publicized to the press are impossible to follow in the warehouse. The assembly lines often require workers to be in close proximity. The solution demanded by workers across the country: temporarily close the warehouses for sanitation, while continuing to compensate workers.
On Wednesday, Amazon said it would halt all shipping in France after a court reprimanded it for failing to protect workers and ordered it to deliver only food, hygiene, and medical products. The suit was brought by SUD-Commerce, a union representing Amazon warehouse employees. Amazon’s worst nightmare is that after the dust settles, American Amazon workers will have become more like their French counterparts.
From its inception, Amazon has cracked down hard against organized labor. In 2001, Amazon laid off 850 call center employees in Seattle after they attempted to unionize. Eighteen years later, a union-busting training video for managers leaked onto the internet. The video’s animated protagonist advised, “We are not anti-union, but we are not neutral either…Our business model is associated with speed, innovation, and consumer obsession—things that are not usually associated with union.” Amazon’s strategy is to scare and intimidate workers into silence. Beyond Smalls, Amazon has fired a warehouse worker in Minnesota and two Seattle tech workers, all of whom criticized Amazon for putting workers’ lives in jeopardy.
If there is one central dichotomy that governs COVID-19 society, it is the difference between the essential and the non-essential. Amazon proudly proclaims on its blog, “Our employees are heroes helping people get the products they need delivered to their doorsteps, products they might not otherwise be able to get while maintaining social distancing.” Stunned by the duplicity, workers rightly respond, then why aren’t we treated as heroes? Mapped onto our shocked economy—where investors spend their days doing crossword puzzles and nurses work from dawn to dusk—the language of ‘essential’ begins to sound a lot like the centuries old rhetoric of the divide between the ‘productive’ and ‘parasitic’ classes. Scared for their lives, warehouse workers are realizing the value of their labor and the power of organization. And all while Amazon’s stock continues to rise.
BILAL MEMON B’22 no longer orders from Amazon, and urges you to donate to this mutual aid fund to support Chris Smalls and his colleagues.