A group of current and former Amazon employees are organising a series of demonstrations outside various properties owned by company CEO Jeff Bezos to protest against the treatment of warehouse workers during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The first demonstration was held outside Bezos’ New York penthouse on 9 August, with further protests to follow on 27 August and 3 September outside the CEO’s Washington DC and Beverly Hills homes, respectively.
The demonstrations are being spearheaded by The Congress of Essential Workers (TCOEW), a workers’ collective formed in the wake of various strike actions organised on International Workers’ Day on 1 May to protest over the alleged failure of Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods and others to provide staff with adequate protection from the coronavirus.
A press release for the upcoming action contains a list of 10 demands from TCOEW, including the provision of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation supplies for all employees; for all employees who test positive for Covid-19 to be placed on paid leave at 100% pay until they are cleared; for next-of-kin to be paid $200,000 directly from the company in addition to their life insurance policy if an employee dies during the pandemic; and for all staff to be made shareholders upon employment.
According to TCOEW co-founder and lead organiser Christian Smalls, who was fired by Amazon after organising a work stoppage at its JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York on 30 March, the demonstrations are mainly designed to draw the public’s attention to how the e-commerce giant has behaved during the pandemic.
“I don’t want people to forget the fact that workers are still in distress,” Smalls told Computer Weekly. “It’s been six months [since the pandemic started] and there’s always another big story and things fade away. Amazon is obviously spending millions of dollars on PR, they keep releasing these propaganda commercials, so it’s like they’re trying to bury us and I’m not allowing that to happen.”
Smalls said the overall goal of TCOEW was to ensure the creation of a “rank-and-file democracy” within companies like Amazon whereby workers are given the opportunity to “control their own destiny”.
“As a worker, you shouldn’t have to be subject to termination or retaliation for speaking up about health and safety,” he said, adding that TCOEW is wary of adopting organising structures that could further take power away from workers.
“We’re in such a huge workforce, it would be difficult for one union to control, and if you think about it, it’s basically another transition of power – they collect union dues and sometimes they do get corrupted by politicians, and we don’t want that to happen,” said Smalls. “We want this to be completely employee-driven and employee-controlled – a rank-and-file democracy within the company.”
Jordan Flowers, another co-founder and lead organiser of TCOEW, added: “We’re just going to keep making more noise until our voices are heard.”
Flowers said three of TCOEW’s four co-founders had been fired by Amazon since the end of March, with the other receiving a “final write-up”, meaning the company is considering further disciplinary action. Flowers’ own termination occurred wrongfully on 15 June because of a computer error in Amazon’s human resources (HR) department, which had not properly recorded his request for personal leave.
Despite being reinstated by the company after discovering the mistake, Flowers himself is immunocompromised, suffering from lupus nephritis, which means he has felt unsafe returning to Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse, where he worked alongside Smalls.
“I’ve had emails saying I’ve got to come back to work, them threatening me with my job, and I’m telling them I can’t come in because I’m immunocompromised – if you don’t want to clean the facility and have workers tested, then it’s not safe,” he said. “As long as they don’t do what we ask, I’m just going to sit at home and pray they don’t fire me again.”
Despite informing the company’s HR team of his situation, Flowers continues to regularly receive automated emails urging him to return to work, and claims he has been denied medical leave by the company, leaving him without pay since the pandemic began.
As part of its 10 demands, TCOEW is also calling for Amazon employees to be reinstated if they were terminated for refusing to work during the pandemic, and for every employee to be given sick pay retroactively from 1 March.
Amazon had not responded by the time of publication when asked its views about these demands and whether it wanted to respond to Flowers’ claims.
Despite firing a number of other workers who were openly critical of its approach to the pandemic, including user experience designers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa – organisers of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) campaign group – and Minnesota warehouse worker Bashir Mohamed, Amazon maintains that Smalls’ employment was terminated for “putting the health and safety of others at risk by violating social distancing guidelines”.
Shortly after Smalls was dismissed, Vice News uncovered written notes from a meeting attended by Bezos, which detailed Amazon’s strategy to discredit Smalls and the wider movement of workers demanding better working conditions during the pandemic.
“We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organiser’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” wrote Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky.
“Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organising movement. 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.”
In a statement to Vice, Zapolsky said his comments were “personal and emotional”, and that he was “frustrated and upset that an Amazon employee would endanger the health and safety of other Amazonians by repeatedly returning to the premises after having been warned to quarantine himself after exposure to virus Covid-19”.
In response to these revelations, Smalls told Computer Weekly at the time: “The simple fact that you’ve got the richest man in the world having a meeting with all his top attorneys and executives tells you that we’re speaking truth to power.”
Amazon did not respond by the time of publication when asked about its pattern of retaliation against outspoken employees.
According to Flowers, the characterisation of Smalls as “not smart or articulate” betrays a wider problem of racism at Amazon.
“These are all racial remarks – if you’re saying Chris Smalls isn’t smart and articulate, you’re saying I’m not smart or articulate… you’re basically saying we’re not smart because we’re workers for you, you’re degrading us,” he said, describing Amazon’s subsequent pronouncements of support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement as “just a publicity stunt”.
Flowers added: “It’s just [an opportunity] for them to say ‘we’re Black Lives Matter’ because that’s what’s hitting the news between George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It’s just a way to get people off track from what they said back in March… you guys remember back in March when they said this man was not smart or articulate, and now you’re saying Black Lives Matter?”
Smalls also characterised Amazon’s BLM stance as “hypocritical” and a “whitewash”.
“There is no solidarity with the black community, they hire and fire us on a daily basis – that doesn’t mean they stand with us, that just means we’re nothing but expendable profit,” he said.
“It’s a shame I even worked for them, that’s just how I feel after five years with them. I just feel like I was part of the problem at some point in time. I was blinded, it’s horrible what they do to people. The stories I receive on a daily basis would probably make someone who’s not strong-minded go insane.”
Smalls said the company’s treatment of black and brown employees was particularly bad: “They know they have something over their head which is either money or their immigration status… they hire individuals that don’t have alternative solutions.”
Computer Weekly asked Amazon to respond to claims that its BLM stance was hypocritical, but received no response by the time of publication.