Fired Amazon employee Chris Smalls says workers will protest until they feel protected, while Amazon-owned Whole Foods is ranking stores where employees are most likely to unionize.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News, I’m Jaisal Noor. Hundreds of Amazon workers are calling out sick today, Tuesday, April 21st, as protests escalate against hazardous working conditions at the retail giant during the Coronavirus pandemic. Amazon has fired multiple workers who have warned the company was failing to abide by its own social distancing guidelines. Dozens have contracted COVID-19 in over 130 Amazon warehouses across the country according to United for Respect, one of the groups back in the actions. Tuesday’s strike comes amidst reports Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, has been secretly using heat maps to track employees, and determine what stores could be at risk of unionizing. That’s according to Business Insider. Amazon is owned by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, whose wealth has increased by $24 billion during this crisis.
Well, coming back onto The Real News to discuss all of this and more is Chris Smalls. He was fired by Amazon in March after working at the company for five years. Amazon says they didn’t fire Chris Smalls for organizing a protest at a Staten Island warehouse, but because he wasn’t social distancing, which many workers have disputed. Leaked documents also revealed execs at the company planned a smear campaign against Smalls. Thanks so much for joining us again, Chris.
Chris Smalls: Thank you for having me.
Jaisal Noor: So I wanted to get the latest from this nationwide sick-out against unsafe working conditions, and the spreading of the Coronavirus at Amazon, something that you and many others had been warning about and Amazon ended up firing you over your concerns. Give us the latest.
Chris Smalls: Yeah. Well, just to point out, like you said, would any of the safety precautions that they’re taking now, would it had happened had I not done what I’ve done? That’s a question that everybody should be asking this company as well. It took for me to be terminated for them to start protecting the employees is a shame in itself.
On the latest mobilizations, right now, currently we have a strike going on today, a call out nationwide, as you pointed out. Also we have a one that’s going to be held on April 24. So we’re continuing to protest and we’re continuing doing to take action. This is what we have to do to get our voices heard. Then we’re going to continue to do that.
Jaisal Noor: And can you talk about what the demands are right now? We know countries like France have banned the ordering of non-essential goods at Amazon, over safety concerns, and that was a court order. Do you think that would be a good move in the US?
Chris Smalls: Absolutely. I already know from speaking to the employees that are still employed, there are still nonessential items still being sold, still being purchased, and they’re risking their lives for items that shouldn’t be sold right now, and that definitely should be taken into consideration. There’s still multiple buildings out there across the nation that haven’t been receiving the PPE. I speak to employees and the West coast that still haven’t received gloves or masks. There’s a lot of things that it’s not really the reality of the situation. I know Amazon has been putting out a lot of PR videos. They had Jeff Bezos himself walking around the building. That’s not really what’s going on in these buildings. Even though they have implemented certain things, employees are still terrified, and still scared to go to work.
Jaisal Noor: So it’s also emerged just yesterday that whole foods, which is of course owned by Amazon, has been tracking workers using heat maps to see what stores are at risk of unionizing. Do you think unions could help address the conditions that many workers are facing now? And many of these workers are in industries that have not unionized.
Chris Smalls: Yeah, absolutely. You know, some type of organization, the employee coalition across the nation would definitely be a plus, compared to what we got going now. Obviously the CEO and the company failed us, and failed the employees. So something needs to be implemented that’s going to be pro employees and pro front liners. I definitely agree that some organization, whatever union, some type of workforce coalition can be controlled by the employees to meet all their demands, and I’m all for it, and I support it 100%.
Jaisal Noor: So I know as frontline workers, Amazon workers have been also asking for hazard pay. I think the company right now is giving something like $2 an hour as hazard pay… So talk about what the workers are demanding, because we know Jeff Bezos who was already worth more than a hundred billion dollars, his wealth has increased by at least $24 billion during this crisis, which is more money than you could ever spend. So to talk about what the workers are demanding.
Chris Smalls: Yeah. You know, the money that they offer now, the $2 increase, the double time, the $1000 sign on bonuses, the things that are implemented within the buildings, they have like incentives for $200 if you, I guess recommend certain employees. It’s all blood money. It’s not really hazard pay to me. You got to think about the veterans that have been there two, three, four years and had to work their way up to these salaries. They decided to just give it to people that they’re hiring. That’s just disrespectful, to me. It’s not really hazard pay, it’s just blood money. It’s to meet their demands, it’s not really to meet the demands of the customer.
It’s definitely not meeting demands of the employees. What we mean by hazard pay is that we shouldn’t be working during this crisis, during this pandemic. We need to be staying home with our families, safe and quarantined. Whenever there’s a virus, or somebody that tested positive in the buildings that we work at, they should be shut down, sanitized, and that hazard pay should be for employees that’s willing to elect that. And have a choice to stay home with their families. We shouldn’t be forced to go to work, or a test positive to get a quarantine pay, or stay home and be unpaid. It’s not an option. It doesn’t help us out financially. That’s not a solution. So hazard pay is something that is definitely a demand, I believe by all employees.
Jaisal Noor: And finally there’s a growing movement to quote reopen America. And these calls have been backed by Trump who tweeted like liberate places like Michigan, and Virginia, and we know they’re funded, at least in part, by right-wing billionaires who are concerned the most about their bottom line, and the money they might be losing during this crisis. Do you think it’s also important to talk about who is most at risk when the country is open, and who benefits? Because what some people are saying is that, these protests to reopen America are really about getting low wage workers, people of color back to work, and to possibly be exposed to COVID-19, when the actual protesters, aren’t necessarily the ones that are going to be putting their lives on the line.
Chris Smalls: Yeah. I mean… we’re in a tough position, but everybody has got to realize people are dying out here. Minorities are definitely taking up a large percentage of what’s going on in this pandemic. There’s no rush to go back to work. There really isn’t. We got to wake up and realize what’s really going on. You wouldn’t know if you’re not really a front-liner or first responder. You’ve got to listen to us at this time. This is the time to listen to us, because we’re crying out telling you guys, “Hey, we’re not protected. We haven’t been protected. And if we are protected now, it’s a little bit late in the game. It’s widespread.” As you can see, America itself is already the leading toll, as far as the COVID-19, so we’re not ready to open up the economy. I know when these billionaires are losing money and losing revenue, and that’s the real bottom line. They want their money to be piling in.
They want the money to keep rolling in the way it used to be. We’re not ready for that. We got to think about humanity right now, and saving human lives. And think about our future generation, and I don’t think rushing to reopen the economy is the right thing to do. And that’s one reason why I’m going to continue to protest. And what I mean by protest, these are physical walk outs. Something that we need to continue to mobilizing so that they understand where we’re coming from. We’re not going to work for them during this pandemic until we feel that we’re safe and protected.
Jaisal Noor: And Chris Smalls, we know that you’ve been doing a lot of organizing. Where can people go to keep up with the latest on your work as well?
Chris Smalls: Absolutely. You can follow me on Twitter. Follow me on Instagram, shut_downamazon on Twitter. Chris.Smalls_ on Instagram. Reach out to me, and I’ll gladly respond to you. You could follow everything I’m doing right now. What I’m doing is a supporting those who are walking out today, and calling out today, as well as on April 24, and then look or what I’m doing on May 1st, which will be an international walk out.
Jaisal Noor: So you’re talking about an international general strike on May day?
Chris Smalls: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Jaisal Noor: All right, Chris Smalls, thank you so much for joining us. Chris was one of the workers fired by Amazon for essentially trying to raise awareness about the risks that Coronavirus has on, especially Amazon workers, frontline workers. And now workers have contracted COVIS-19 in over 130 Amazon warehouses, which is more than half of the total across the country. Chris Smalls, thank you so much for joining us.
Chris Smalls: Thank you for having me, anytime.
Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
General Assignment Reporter
Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. 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.