Random Lengths interview with Chris Smalls, NY Amazon organizer for May 1 Strike

  • 05/05/2020
  • Mark Friedman

By Mark Friedman, Labor Reporter

We have all seen the Amazon TV commercials that show workers wearing gloves and masks. They claim that Amazon is socially responsible towards both its customers and its workers. And millions of us are using Amazon to receive goods we would otherwise purchase locally…and so their profits have soared, and they have hired more.

Internationally, Amazon has more than 175 operating fulfillment centers and more than 150 million square feet of space where associates pick, pack, and ship millions of Amazon.com customer orders to the tune of millions of items per year.

According to Amazon, the company now operates more than 75 fulfillment centers and 25 sortation centers across North America, which it leases, and employs 125,000 full-time hourly associates in the U.S. During the previous holiday season, the company hired an additional 120,000 workers.

But is there another reality for workers on Amazon “assembly” lines? Has their health and safety been compromised? Is the company fighting unionization efforts with every tool they have including firings of leaders? Random Lengths is glad to bring you the workers story…not the press reports Amazon wants you to believe.

Chris Smalls, Amazon strike leader.

Random Lengths News interviewed Chris Smalls, a management assistant at the New York Amazon facility, known as JFK8. He was reportedly fired March 30 following a strike to call attention to the lack of protections for warehouse workers. The workers are also urging Amazon to close the facility after a worker tested positive for the coronavirus at the time. The organizers said that at least 50 people joined the walkout.

RL: How long have you worked at the New York Amazon warehouse?

CS: From entry level in 2015, responsible for picking up customers’ orders from the robots to a conveyor system upgraded to an area supervisor.

RL: So It was a position of responsibility.

CS: Yes.

RL: Can you describe the working conditions before coronavirus pandemic and how they may have changed since?

CS: It is a production warehouse called JFK-8 with 5,000 workers. Parts moving all the time. The buildings are massive equal to 14 football fields. It’s like ten hours of calisthenics. Even after coronavirus hit there was no protection, no cleaning supplies, and a lot of employees were getting and coming in sick. Working conditions were very scary; Management did not take it seriously till 2nd -3rd week in March, when they finally decided to implement safety guidelines. 

RL: What event or events or specific conditions made you decide to become an organizer of the job action?

CS: Safety has always been an issue. They hire senior citizens, young adults, and the work processes are not suitable for their physical physique which plays a part in injuries.  I was not an organizer prior. I was a low-level supervisor. What made me act on March 30 was a health and safety concern. There were no safety guidelines. Once I realized that we were working around people who tested positive…I decided to organize a walk-out.  There was no transparency between the company and its employees.

RL: How did you know that employees tested positive for coronavirus?

CS: There was absolutely no testing of workers in the plant. Very hard to get a test in NY.  A colleague who I did send home—a supervisor, tested positive. People would tell you if they tested positive. Company was aware that she tested positive and it was medically confirmed. Amazon did not quarantine people in her department, including me. I found out from her. I went to HR as soon as I got her text messages saying I was exposed. The building should have been closed. 

RL: How did you decide what type of job action to do?

CS: I and others sent out emails to the NYC Health dept, CDC, and US state dept. That whole week I sat in the cafeteria –without pay, telling co-workers that they had been exposed. I walked into the general managers with 10 associates every day to raise our concerns.  They decided March 28- to quarantine me. They were just trying to silence me. That’s when I decided to mobilize a walkout on March 30. I created a private chat on social media of Amazon employees willing to help and participate. Everybody had assignments to make posters, notes to pass out;  we sent e-mails to media, and they finally published articles. Media started calling me.  We protested March 30, at 12:30 for 2 ours—in the parking lot, six feet apart. Then I was terminated. 

RL: How did they inform you that you were terminated? 

CS: Told me over the phone. 

RL: What has been the response of your coworkers and other warehouses to the actions?

CS: We started a revolution, more people are speaking out, there were more walk-outs at Amazon in Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, with nation-wide sick-outs and call-outs at Whole Foods, Instacart, Starbucks, Target, FedEx drivers joining us. I am receiving texts and phone calls from employees all over the world every day.  

RL: Is there a campaign to get you rehired or are you focusing mainly on the May 1 action?

CS: I am focused on May Day. I heard there are groups fighting for my rehiring and I appreciate that…but I am taking my own legal action. My focus is on May 1 walkouts.

RL: I understand that on May 1, International workers day there will be job actions worldwide at Amazon warehouses. Can you tell us a bit more?

RL:  On May 1 all companies I mentioned will hold demonstrations, walk-outs, call-outs. People are not going to work—or if at work will walk-out at a certain time; demonstrate outside front of the buildings.  Consumers can support us by boycotting till they respond to our demands; what we are fighting for. 

RL: On May 2, you will be speaking as part of an International Workers Day zoom panel with leaders of the National Nurses Union and other international unions calling for an end to the US blockade of Cuba and for US, Cuba and Canadian medical collaboration to fight the pandemic. 

CS: This pandemic is unprecedented. All the knowledge and help we can receive is important. I will try and be a catalyst. Me joining this fight is to protect people; thru knowledge and education to fight this pandemic. Cuba is doing a great thing…door to door service, testing; which is an excellent idea. I wish it was done here in the US. If I can spread the message of how much difference that is making.  It is our duty as humans to do that. We need door to door testing in NY and to make sure this country is better prepared for next time.

RL: What can we ask our readers primarily in Southern California to do to assist the organizing efforts at Amazon?

CS:  Support us…we are trying to unionize, and for all employees to be protected…especially frontline employees. If you hear anything in your local community…support them. We should feel no intimidation in voicing our concerns thru social media nor should you. 

RL: Is there a webpage, nationwide petition or job actions around the country on May 1 that they can join to support?

CS: Use social media to support our unionizing efforts and call on Amazon to protect all employees. This is a cry for help.

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