Editor’s note: Chris Smalls (pictured above) speaks with the People’s Tribune.
In May, Amazon ended an unlimited unpaid time-off policy — a policy that gave workers job security and the opportunity to not be exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ending of the policy was among a set of actions by Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, who earlier in the year had encouraged Amazon employees to “donate” their paid time off in support of fellow co-workers in need of extra paid sick-time. The largest online retail company not only cut necessary services, leaving many vulnerable, but also increased sales, which translated to huge profits for Bezos. Bezos then enjoyed a huge government bailout reward of $24 billion, while benefiting from having access to healthcare and isolation in his lavish mansions. This polarized reality struck close to Smalls, as he describes in the interview below.
“I’m just trying to utilize the best of my ability to make sure workers [understand] they deserve more than what we’ve been getting…all workers, we’re all, essential workers, and we’re the lifeline of this country and we’re not being treated right. The legislative laws are not right for workers as well. There’s a lot of laws that need to be changed…dating back to the Civil Rights Movement…[the] one to three percenters, they’re not taking care of us.
“No, we’re underpaid. We’re not making a decent living wage. We’re not getting free health care. We’re not getting free childcare. We’re not getting things we need to survive, and COVID-19 does expose a lot about that…I have solidarity with workers in the UK, with London, Canada, Germany, Australia…”
Smalls was with the company since 2015 and opened three major buildings for them. Smalls had serious concerns about the working conditions: “When COVID-19 came into play, for those still coming to work every day, I started noticing people getting sick around me, with symptoms and fatigue. Someone even [vomited] at the workstation … a lot of my colleagues were calling out of work. It was very [alarming].”
Smalls’ words serve as examples of the obscene working conditions that occur across companies, like Amazon. “Workers [are] overworked…not allowed to use restrooms…[work] long hours [and] on [their] feet all day.” And Amazon has a tendency to not “bend for anybody…it is run completely off of numbers and metrics,” shared Smalls.
Smalls expressed the urgent need to address the issues he witnessed, especially amidst the pandemic: “[I] was very alarmed…I took my concerns up to HR, following the proper channels, [and] I realized that this company just wasn’t prepared and they didn’t have any real solution for us. It was like, ‘hey, just come to work. Don’t worry about it.’ Very nonchalant and that just wasn’t sitting right with me at all. So…I had to take the action.”
Smalls organized a protest, losing his job the very same day. “They claimed I violated social distancing policies that didn’t exist . . . there weren’t [any] rules. No PPE provided. There weren’t [any] true safety guidelines or social distance policy in place. And that was the reason I was out there.”
Smalls formed an organization called the Congress of Essential Workers with the vision of “[having] enough workforce where we control our own destiny.” For Smalls, the formation of the organization is beyond him, whatever the results, it is about all the workers and their benefit. Smalls has continued organizing alongside fellow workers. In August, the Congress of Essential Workers marched outside of Bezos’ property in Manhattan with a lot of workers and organizations showing support.
As another Labor Day anniversary passes us, let’s follow Smalls’ words and “continue to fight together.”