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Amazon is using COVID-19 rules to control their employees, not to protect them, says an Amazon worker who took part in the fourth strike at a Chicago facility.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Speaker 1: We want to work in a clean facility. We want to work where we’re going to be safe, our kids are going to be safe, our families are going to be safe.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News, I’m Jaisal Noor. Frontline workers are staging walkouts across the country to protest unsafe working conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in skyrocketing orders. Last week, Amazon fired Chris Smalls after he helped stage a walkout from a New York warehouse to demand its closure so it can be sanitized after employees tested positive. We spoke to Smalls last week.

Chris Smalls: Everybody’s coming together now in solidarity and that’s exactly what I wanted because we’re going to need that to obviously take down these billionaires that’s collecting all this blood money while the people that have the power… I want you guys to know that we have the power. We’re the one that’s making them rich. How to hurt them? Stop their money, walk out, walk out, stop working for them.

Jaisal Noor: Over the weekend, Amazon workers in Chicago held their fourth strike after at least two employees tested positive for COVID-19. The pandemic has hit Chicago’s communities of color particularly hard. African Americans make up nearly 70% of coronavirus deaths in the city, even though they are just 29% of the population. Well, we now go to Chicago to speak to an Amazon worker who has been taking part in these strikes. Christian Zamaron, thank you so much for joining us.

Christian Zamar…: Thanks.

Jaisal Noor: You took part in the strike, we have that footage showing all these cars that came out to support you. Talk about why you’re striking right now. Obviously we’re in this pandemic, people are being told to stay at home and people are being told, “Don’t go out to the grocery store.” They’re being told, “Don’t go out for supplies.” So it makes sense that people are ordering stuff on Amazon and other online services because they’re trying to stay safe, but what position has this put you in?

Christian Zamar…: Well, we’re striking for our lives and we’re striking for our health and our safety and for the lives of our loved ones. Amazon is putting us in a real difficult position. To the world they’re saying that we’re heroes, but inside of the warehouse walls they’re treating us like we’re disposable, like we’re trash. They’re putting us in a real hard place. For those of us that have loved ones at home that are sick or have diabetes, lupus, et cetera, it’s putting us between a rock and a hard place. Because it’s like either we go to work and make the money that we need and then we’re bringing the virus home potentially, or we stay at home and we suffer financially. There’s all sorts of situations that they’re putting us in to ship the goods that people need. But it’s also angring because a lot of the stuff that we’re shipping is not essential.

Jaisal Noor: Amazon says they’ve implemented social distancing. For example, they said they fired worker Chris Smalls, who we’ve just heard from, they said they fired him because he was not abiding by social distancing and he disagreed with that when we talked to him. But they’ve said they had cleaning supplies, they’re taking measures to address your concerns. How do you respond to that?

Christian Zamar…: They’re using social distancing actually as a way to police us and as a way to keep us from talking and as a way to target us. When we were outside striking, that’s what they would come out and yell. Dominick Wilkerson, our site lead and the other managers, they would come out and yell, “Y’all need to be apart, be six feet apart, be six feet apart. If you don’t leave the property, if you’re not six feet apart, we could terminate you. We could suspend you. We could write you up.” They’re using it as a way to say they’re keeping a safe, during the work process they’re still making us… I mean, they say that they’re not, but to do the work, we are coming within six feet of each other. For that they don’t look too closely. They say they do, but they don’t. They just let it slide.
But when it comes to us standing up for our rights, that’s when they really get on us about it and that’s when they say, “Okay, yeah, we’re going to write you up for that.” They’re using it. They’re using it to control us. The police are too, same exact thing. They called the police on us and that’s the first thing that the police said, “Make sure you’re social distancing. Make sure you’re social distancing. Move over here, make sure you’re social distancing.” The sidewalk was really narrow, so then when they told us that we can’t be on the Amazon property and that we had to go to the sidewalk, they were just getting on us for not social distancing. How can you social distance if the sidewalk is so narrow and then we can’t go on the street. They were just trying to corral us.

Jaisal Noor: And so you’ve obviously heard Chris Smalls who got fired. You talked about some of those warnings that you could get terminated for taking part in that protest, talk about what the message has been from the management to the workers who were taking part in this. Some of the Amazon workers I talked to in Baltimore have said that they viewed Chris Smalls firing as a… He was basically made an example of for other workers to not be organizing and not be taking these actions.

Christian Zamar…: Oh yeah, I mean, they’re trying to scare us. They’re trying to intimidate us. It’s very clear that that’s what they’re trying to do and we’re not falling for it. Because we know that they’re trying to scare us so that we get all divided so that we get quiet, so that we stop doing what we’re doing, so that we stop speaking out. I mean, we’re fighting for our lives here. We’re fighting for our lives and for the lives of our loved ones, so there’s nothing that they can do or say that will scare us. We’re going to continue fighting regardless. I mean, honestly, we were laughing about it in the break room last night because they think that we’re stupid. They think that we don’t talk. They think that we don’t know what they’re doing. We know exactly what they’re doing, and we’ve faced people like them our whole lives. It’s a little insulting to think that they could scare us in this manner. Some people do get scared, of course, some people do get nervous, but at the end of the day we have to think about what they’re trying to do and why they’re trying to do it. We have to remember what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do it. We know that we’re in the right so that’s why we continue to fight.

Jaisal Noor: Lay out your demands.

Christian Zamar…: Well, the main one is to shut Amazon down for two weeks with pay, and we’re talking specifically at DCH1. But I think that that applies for basically any Amazon facility that has a positive coronavirus case. The reason for that is because even if they say that, “Okay, we’re hiring more janitorial staff to clean, et cetera, et cetera, we’re doing social distancing and what not.” Even if they clean it, the thing is that the virus is living within us. There’s not enough tests and Amazon isn’t testing us to determine who has it and who doesn’t have it. Even if they cleaned that place real nice and clean, any of us comes back with it and we’re carrying it, if we’re asymptomatic and we’re carrying it, it’s going to infect other people and the warehouses are just going to continue serving as a vector of infection, basically a virus spreading.
Some of the other demands is, one of the most important one, is that we need the information immediately. We need to be able to make an informed decision for ourselves as to whether we come in or whether we don’t come in. Amazon has taken a long time to tell us when there’s a positive coronavirus case and they don’t tell us all of the details. There’s some laws, like HIPAA laws or something like that, that they say that they can’t give us all the details for, but still they need to tell us as soon as possible and them to tell us at the beginning of the shift or as soon as they know. Because so far they’ve been telling us in the middle of shift and they’d been going one by one and telling us not to tell other people, let managers tell other people, to diffuse our anger and keep us separated, just let that shock sink in and then just be like, “Oh, what do I do? Do I just continue working? I guess I’m already here, so I might as well stay here.”
Instead of if they tell the whole group, then everyone would start having questions at the same time. At all times, they’re trying to individualize, always trying to just divide and conquer. So that’s another one of our demand. Another one… I mean this quarantine pay thing that they announced, they need to actually give it and they need-

Jaisal Noor: It’s $2 an hour, is that right? $2 an hour extra.

Christian Zamar…: That’s a little bit different. That’s the hazard pay. We also have a hazard pay demand in there, which is we’re demanding 1.5 time the pay. Right now they’re giving us $2 an extra an hour for working in these conditions. We’re saying we need at least time and a half. Honestly it should be double, but we’re saying time and a half.

Jaisal Noor: Jeff Bezos is worth over a hundred billion dollars.

Christian Zamar…: Richest man in the history of the world. What’s he need that money… We need it. We need it and our communities need it and he has enough money to pay for all of this. I mean he’s building clocks and mountains and building his spaceships and you he’s envisioning a future society where industry is no longer going to exist on earth. We need that money now. Another one of the demands, the quarantine pay that I was mentioning. Amazon made an announcement saying that they are going to give quarantine pay to people that are diagnosed with coronavirus or people that have to self-quarantine, but they’re not actually giving it out to most people. The great majority of people just encounter barrier after barrier. We’re saying, “Remove those barriers. People need that if they’re taking care of their loved ones, if they have children that they need to take care of, or if they themselves are feeling sick or uncomfortable going to work because they don’t want to infect other people.”
They should be able to get that quarantine pay without all those barriers. There’s some other demands too. It’s a total of seven demands. I don’t have the paper in front of me [inaudible 00:10:43].

Jaisal Noor: That’s all right. I also wanted to ask you, we know that communities of color, working communities, are the ones that are being disproportionately impacted by this, which is the heart of Chicago, the heart of many, many cities; New York, Chicago, you name it. In Chicago, African Americans make up less than 30% of the population yet they comprise 70% of deaths, so who is really paying the price for this? Can you talk about that as well?

Christian Zamar…: I mean, the people that work at Amazon are, the people that work at Walmart, the people that work at all of these so-called essential jobs. I mean our work is essential, but we’re not treated like we’re essential. We’re treated like we’re disposable. Just at work last night I spoke with a co-worker. I think she’s had her cousin just pass away. He’s 25, black. I saw a Facebook post of another co-worker. She also had a relative that passed away also because of COVID-19. A lot of black folks, a lot of poor folks, already have health complications. We already have no health insurance or just poor access to healthcare, pre-existing conditions due to a number of systemic reasons and then we’re still forced to work, or coerced in some way financially, or whatever that is, and we’re exposing ourselves to more risk, bringing that to ourselves and then bringing that to our loved ones that we’re also taking care of it. That’s why the number is what it is. It’s not a surprise. No one is surprised about it.

Jaisal Noor: Well thank you so much for joining us and we’ll keep following your story and stories of workers around the country. We’ll be checking back in on you and seeing how you’re doing, how the communities are doing all over the country and if Amazon takes your demand seriously and actually answers these basic safety concerns that you’re raising here. Thank you so much for joining us.

Christian Zamar…: Thank you.

Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.