Taking the power back

Taking the power back

An interview with Amazon whistleblower Chris Smalls

Chris Smalls is the ex-Amazon employee who exposed the corporation's unsafe practices on COVID-19, and went on to spark a national movement against the company. I spoke to him in this 40-minute interview for DiEM TV.

Chris is an activist by necessity. He talks about how his organising against Amazon began, and where it's going next as he faces off against the richest man in the world.

Transcript of the interview

MEHRAN: Today is International Worker’s Day. So I’m very happy to be chatting today with someone who’s on the front line fighting for workers’ rights.

His name is Chris Smalls and his target is the retail giant Amazon. With so many people stuck at home due to the coronavirus crisis, Amazon’s profits have exploded. $4 billion in the last quarter that these guys made alone.

Chris used to be an assistant warehouse manager for Amazon in New York. In March, he found that Amazon was failing to provide adequate protection for its employees against the virus. And he also found that they were hiding a growing number of cases of COVID in its warehouses.

The company subsequently fired Chris. I’ll just say that Amazon seems to have messed with the wrong person here though, because Chris is not going quietly.

Since then Chris has been at the center of a growing movement of frontline workers at corporations that offer home delivery, who say that their companies are also failing to protect them – companies like Walmart, whole foods and others. He’s organizing a walkout and boycott today.

So, Chris, welcome to the show.

CHRIS: Thank you for having me. Pleasure to be here with y’all.

MEHRAN: Tell us about the conditions at Amazon that led to you taking these actions.

CHRIS: Well, at the beginning of March, we had no cleaning supplies. No PPE, no face masks, not the right type of gloves provided to protect your skin. The workers, my employees around me in a domino effect were beginning to fall ill.

Some of them were dizzy. Couldn’t finish at 10-hour work shift. Some of them were fatigued. Some of them were vomiting at their workstations. We were cleaning up and we would put somebody back on that same workstation.

These are just some of the things I’ve seen, in the beginning of March. We were still on top of each other. There were no safety guidelines being implemented. We were still throwing parties in the middle of March. We had parties with DJs and popcorn machines. It was very alarming.

I tried to raise concerns because I knew something was very wrong.

MEHRAN: You had a colleague that fell ill with the virus, and you asked her to go home.... what was the response of the company?

CHRIS: Absolutely. So I took some time off from work, unpaid leave, to protect myself. I took the unpaid policy that they offer.

When I returned back to work on March 24th, my colleague who was a supervisor as well, same department, we work on the same floor together. She was sick. Her eyes were bloodshot. She told me that she was sick. That she went for testing the night before.

We all know you don’t get the tests unless you have severe symptoms here in the States. Especially in New York. So I suggested that she go home, and she did.

The policy of Amazon is that you’re allowed to come to work sick as a dog, until they receive physical documentation from the doctors that you tested positive. Which could take a number of days, sometimes weeks to get.

So that allowed her to expose not only to myself, but to my employees. She was exposed to my employees for 10 hours a day, multiple days in a row. So that’s what happened when I seen her that day. She was in the building, positive.

When I sent her home, we had a conversation for about five minutes. Two hours later, we have our managers meeting. We have that every day, a daily sync meeting. And we learned that we had an associate on March 11 who tested positive.

[The Amazon warehouse in] Queens, New York, had the same situation a week prior. They had a positive case. They shut the building down. They sent everybody home with pay. They sanitised the building. Everybody came back to work.

I was expecting Staten Island, New York do the same thing. We’re only 20 minutes away. I said, OK management, what are we doing? They said, “Don’t tell the employees. We don’t want to cause a panic.” We’re going to the individuals on that side of the building with that associate last worked.

That was my last time working with Amazon.

MEHRAN: So one of your colleagues tested positive and the managers said, don’t tell anybody, let’s keep it quiet.

CHRIS: Yes, absolutely. They said, don’t tell the employees, we don’t want to cause a panic. We’re going to talk to the individuals. How do you narrow that down? Beats me.

We don’t know how long this associate had it. We don’t know where he got it from. Didn’t makes sense to me. It still doesn’t until this day.

That’s why that was the last day that I actually worked for Amazon. I left the building that day, I sent out emails to the health department, the CDC, the state government of New York to close a building down and get it quarantined. But I didn’t get no response. New York was the epicentre. So these departments are overwhelmed right now.

So I returned back to the building every day that week, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, March 28th. I returned back. Sat in the cafeteria for eight hours a day off the clock on my own free will, telling the employees the truth that management didn’t want to tell them. Telling them that they had possibly been exposed to somebody who tested positive.

We need to voice our concerns. So every day I took groups of 10, into the general manager’s office, interrupting his meetings to voice our concerns.

We wanted the building to be closed down. Something simple. Closed down, sanitised, be returned back to work. They refused. That entire week they gave us excuses on top of excuses.

The last day of the week they decided to quarantine me and only me. None of the employees that were expose to my colleague for 10 hours a day. Not even the person I ride to work with every single day. They didn’t even quarantine him.

So that tells you right there. Uh, they wanted to silence me. That’s what forced me to mobilize the walkout on March 30th.

MEHRAN: There’s no paid sick leave in Amazon, right?

CHRIS: Back then there wasn’t, but they started today actually.

MEHRAN: The day of your strike.

CHRIS: What a coincidence!

MEHRAN: And on top of that, you have to have a positive test confirmed, which can take weeks if you’re suspected of having the virus, to be able to be given quarantine and sick leave at home.

OK. So you organized the walkout, tell me about how that went and what the company’s reaction was.

CHRIS: So, March 28th is when they quarantined me. I felt defeated. I felt like I lost. I felt like, all right, they silenced when they got me to stay home.

But I’m a supervisor and these are my people. I spent 40, 50, 60 hours a week with these people; I consider them extended family. I couldn’t sit home and do nothing. That’d be inhumane by itself. That’s insanity to me.

So I said, what can I do, what’s my last optio?. And I said, you know what, why not just put together something that’s going to be uplifting. Something that’s going to raise the voices of the voiceless. To mobilise a walkout.

Using a social media platform we created a secret private chat with some employees that worked over there during the weekend. I reached out to the media.

The media finally published my story. So now the media was contacting me. So everything came together at the right time.

And then on Monday, March 30th, I held the walkout. Two hours later, I was terminated for it.

MEHRAN: And what reason did they give you for your termination?

CHRIS: They say that I violated safety guidelines, violated a quarantine policy, social distance guidelines... but they didn’t exist [at the time]. They weren’t implemented until after my termination.

MEHRAN: So that was the end of March. We’re now beginning of May. What’s happened since then? This has kind of grown far beyond that warehouse in New York, and it’s also encompassed some political actors and legal actions...

CHRIS: Well, I started a revolution.

I changed the entire Amazon network. Because of me being terminated, they now implemented temperature checking, providing facial masks for the most part to some of the buildings. And they’re doing a bunch of cleaning now, hiring third party companies to clean these buildings between shifts. That all started at because of me.

But there have been been multiple walkouts because the safety [measures] that they’re doing now, [are] too late.

This virus has been around for a couple months. They were reactive instead of proactive. And now you have an abundance of cases and multiple buildings and multiple locations, all across the world.

And, because of that, now we decided to form this alliance that we’re doing today and speak up and fight back. And that’s exactly what you’ve seen and will continue to see until the company makes some changes and meets our demands.

MEHRAN: In addition to organising this action, one of the things that you’ve done is crowdsourced details of official data from Amazon about how many people in its warehouses have been diagnosed positively with COVID.

Can you explain how you put that together and you know, what are the mechanics of that?

CHRIS: Absolutely. So in March... I got on national TV and exposed the fact that the company was not being transparent about how many cases we got in these buildings. That very same night after I finished that interview, we started receiving these texts from the company's prospective sites, sending out texts to the employees [alerting them to positive cases].

Thank God for the team that’s been working, on this. My team, one lady in particular, she has been keeping track of all the text messages from all the buildings, nationwide here in the States. So we put together a data spreadsheet. We have multiple people, sending the sources from all these different buildings to one source, which is her.

And she’s been tallying up, every day, verified sources, direct messages coming from these sites. We totaled up over 600 plus and over 150 buildings nationwide and counting. Every single day we get more texts and, anybody on the team receives them, we immediately forwarded to her and she, she tracks it.

MEHRAN: So this is 600 cases in 150 warehouses across the US?

CHRIS: Absolutely. Verified.

MEHRAN: Right. And endangering employees, employees’s families, the wider community... and also the consumers who are sitting at home, ordering from Amazon. Because we don’t understand a lot about how this virus transmits.
So this is the information that Amazon obviously hasn’t published anywhere and would rather keep quiet. And you’ve been crowdsourcing that and putting that out. Where can we find this information? Is there a site that has all this data?

CHRIS: We released a heat map, with a press release, two days ago. But we didn’t release the actual documents, which we’re going to release soon. Cause we want to continue tracking this to see first of all if they respond to our actions today.
[My colleague] is still working on it every day and the numbers are going up. We want to continue tracking it until we’re ready to release it to the public. And we will. Because people have passed away, we just lost another associate two days ago, um, in Oakland, California. So people have died that worked for this company and, it’s because of COVID-19.

MEHRAN: On a more personal note. How much of this kind of activism were you, were you into before this happened to you? Were you active in the community for these kinds of causes, worker rights?

CHRIS: I wasn’t active, no. I was just a dedicated employee. I’ve been with the company since 2015. I was just a concerned supervisor that cared about people. I got catapulted into this position of being an organiser.

I even got smeared in this position of being an organiser. I embraced this role and, I’m learning, and I’m hoping that we will be able to have some type of rank and file committee or union or organisation, for the workforce for Amazon.

This Alliance that we’re forming, for all frontliners. That’s what I’m aiming for.

MEHRAN: You alluded to it there, but speak a little bit about Amazon’s response throughout everything that’s been happening. [Amazon management] said, in a [private] memo, that you were not smart, not articulate, and that they would try to focus all the attention on you rather than on their own failings to protect their workers.

And then that memo got leaked. So we know what they talk about unofficially. What do they talk about officially, about what’s going on?

CHRIS: Yeah, that’s the thing. Now we all know what type of conversations they have. For them to even say that, it’s just disgraceful and distasteful, to try to focus on me. I’m at the bottom of the totem pole.

But that means that I was speaking the truth, for them to be intimidated by me.

It’s never going to be Amazon versus Chris Smalls. That’s what they wanted it to be because they figured that’d be easier for them. As much as they want it to be, it’s not going to happen. I’m never going to fall for that trap.

It’s going to be Amazon versus the people. Today is a full display of that. They have to answer to all of us.

It’s a shame to see what type of person Jeff Bezos is, what type of people he has around him and the conversations they have. It’s very sad. And, now everybody knows the truth about him.

MEHRAN: You were with Amazon for several years. What kind of culture exists at that company that allows something like this to happen? Are you aware of similar situations outside of the US, as well? What are the cultural failings here that created these problems?

CHRIS: Well, it’s always about who you work with. If your boss is an a-hole the your job may be miserable, but you may need your job so you put up with it.

Working for Amazon, three different buildings, I dealt with my ups and downs throughout the course of my tenure. But being a supervisor, people confided in me all the time. And for me to just walk away from them, that shows that I didn’t care and I couldn’t do that. So, I tried to make everybody’s job around me easier, try to make everybody’s day around me easier. That’s all I could [do].

Everybody’s been showing support. The emails, texts, phone calls I’ve been receiving, are very uplifting and empowering. From other countries, from the States, from everywhere.

We all have one common goal right now. I think, this is the time to prove that because this pandemic, exposed a lot about how we are as humans.

MEHRAN: I’d like to talk about that. All of these actions are kind of culminating in this strike action or this walkout, that you’ve proposed today.

Can you tell us a bit about how that came together and also explain how it’s gone far beyond Amazon now. We’re looking at Walmart, Target, other big home delivery corporations in the US. Explain how that came together and actually what your demands are.

CHRIS: We were tied together from day one. The same day I held my walkout on March 30th was the same day one of the subsidiaries went on strike as well. And then another company as well, Instacart, went on strike as well. I didn’t know anybody from the company, but I knew that we were fighting for the right cause, the same common goal.

We were unprotected, we were afraid of bringing this virus back home to our families and our communities. So this Alliance formed pretty easily. I orchestrated it. I’ve been holding conference calls every week, with people from all over the nation.Once the word got out there that I was doing it, it spread like wildfire. Everybody that wanted to speak up, joined these conference calls.

And we formulated this Alliance. We put aside our logos that we work for. We put aside the fact that some of us are competitors.

What we got right now is bigger than all of us. This is life or death. But we also want to keep our jobs. None of us should have been retaliated against, including myself. All we were asking for was to be protected and, it’s unfortunate that these companies feel that they have to intimidate people.

That’s fine, I lost my career. But at the same time, I’m going to continue to fight so that this never happens again to people that come after me. So that’s why this Alliance that we formed today was very easy to do. And I’m grateful for it.

MEHRAN: So what exactly are your demands? What are you all calling for

CHRIS: Number one. I have former employees that haven’t been to work, in over a month. That work for the richest man in the world, [people with] underlying health conditions. Some of them are young adults, 18, 19, 20 years old. Their parents are telling them not to go to work.

I have associates that had to sleep in their cars. That can’t happen. So they need to be retro-paid, all that money, all that time that they lost. They should be retro paid for that.

All the people that have been terminated including myself, should be reinstated, offered to be reinstated. PPE to be provided at all times.Transparency and honesty from the companies at all times. How many cases are in these buildings? We want to know what we’re walking into when we clock in. We’re not asking for identities to be exposed. We want the number of cases, the actual number.

And, ultimately, just take care of your employees. Ultimately. We’re asking for certain things, you got all these billions of dollars. There’s no reason why you can’t meet simple demands.

MEHRAN: For anyone watching who doesn’t understand the term PPE, it means protective gear, basically masks, gloves, etc. which is a pretty basic ask for those frontline workers, who are working in these sectors that are delivering to people stuck at home.

I’m getting a couple of questions now from the audience. From ‘HuntressX’: “Chris, have you heard from Amazon workers outside of the US? There’s a distribution centre in my city, Melbourne, Australia, but no info has got out so far.

CHRIS: I have, but not Australia. I would like to though, this is the reason I’m on this call today because I did put out an announcement for anybody in other countries, that are willing to speak up. Please reach out to me.

But I have heard from certain employees in France, for example. They took care of business. That’s what we’re looking for. Unions and other countries, our employees in other countries, that are willing to take action. And I’m here for you guys. If you’re on the line, if you know anybody that works there, that’s afraid to speak up. Don’t be afraid. I fully support you and I will do everything I can to help you guys out.

MEHRAN: And another question from Jerome Bertrand. “Is it a good idea to have a one day global strike against Amazon products online?”

CHRIS: Absolutely. Yeah. Start right now. You’ve got to think, you’re putting several people at risk, to get an item to your doorsteps.

It has to go through Inbound, Outbound, Receiving, ship docks. Another building in a sort centre. It touches multiple people, six, seven, eight people, um, including the customer. The virus does live on cardboard for a number of days. Depending on what you order, it could be on your item.

Drivers could be positive, that are delivering the items. If they’re asymptomatic, they didn’t get a test. You would never know. So you got to take all of that into consideration. My advice is: until the company protects the employees, as a consumer don’t support them.

MEHRAN: You said before that you’ve been catapulted into this. You’re not a typical activist; you’ve become one out of necessity. And you’re messing with some pretty powerful people here, let’s be straight. Are you afraid? How do you feel about all this?

CHRIS: No, I’m not afraid of nothing. The only thing I fear is God. It’s funny, they should be afraid of me. I’m not what they say I am. They don’t know me.

And I feel like the love and support that I’ve been receiving, it’s really empowering, really motivating. And that’s all I need. I need people to back me up, to join the fight, joined forces and, join in solidarity. This is how we take back from capitalism.

These billionaires that sit at home in their safe lifestyles.... they don’t care about us. About our well-being. About our families. All they do is hire and fire. That’s their model, hire and fire. But not anymore. We have the opportunity right now to take that power back.

There’s been an imbalance of power, within the States and possibly, all across the world. For example, in France, well, they took the power back. They said, enough is enough. We’re going to shut it down until you guys do better. So, if anybody that’s in that situation, that’s what we got to do.

If you’re in a situation where it’s not working and you’re unsafe, this is the time. This is life or death. This pandemic is the real enemy. We have to take the power back because the companies will not do it for us.

MEHRAN: Can you talk a bit more about the mechanics of how you are taking the power back, how you are organising...? Because many people [watching], may have the desire to mobilise, organise, try to fight back, but they don’t really know where to start.

You said before you were not really an activist at all. You didn’t have connections with any of these organisations before, you didn’t have a media on speed dial. All of this stuff, since you were fired, you’ve just done it through social media and a couple of Google searches? Take us through how you’ve you’ve reached this critical mass so far.

CHRIS: Yeah, my life changed in one day. I honestly didn’t know how. But what I did was, I sent out emails to the media, your local media. Even small time journalists that publish in the newspapers.

Get the word out there, get the message out there. Amazon is such a huge entity that people are going to gravitate to it just because it’s Amazon. And, over the years, this company have a number of controversial cases, that have been swept under the rug.

And people know about it. There are people out there who have been silenced by this company. So I guess when I was able to get some attention drawn in a negative light against Amazon, everybody flocked to it. And I have just pretty much been that platform, like a voice for the voiceless.

I say that to anybody right now. If you feel like you have the courage to do it - you have to have the courage to step up. You can’t put one foot in and one foot out, you gotta be all the way in. Fully committed to put your career on the line and put your neck on the line.

That’s what I did. I was fully committed. That’s just a step one. And then everything else should fall in place.

MEHRAN: Right. I want to go a bit further on the mechanics. So, beyond just online searches and sending emails and things like that, there was nothing else? All of this, you’ve just grown from the tools that we have available on the internet now. This whole movement.

CHRIS: Pretty much. This world has got a lot smaller. Looking at me talking to you right now. We didn’t know each other a few days ago. You can talk to anybody in any country right now.

So that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. Getting this message out there, spreading the word, spreading the truth. And when you speak truth to power, people realize they’re in the same situation. They’re like, I can relate to Chris Smalls. I’m going through the same thing at my job.”

So reach out to me, reach out to anybody that’s going through the same situation. If you have a small group of employees, coworkers in the same, location, form a group. Start a group, whether it’s privately or publicly. You’ve started something already, and then hopefully from there, it’ll grow from there. That’s exactly what I did.

MEHRAN: So what would you say to people, at Amazon or at companies across the world that in these times of coronavirus, that are working in the retail sector or home delivery, and feel their employer is failing them too? If they say, “Well, I’d like to complain, I’d like to shout about this, but I’m afraid to speak out. I’m afraid I’ll lose my job. It’s better just to put my head down and hope that all of this passes.” What would you say to them?

CHRIS: Well, don’t be afraid because, this is life or death. Every day that passes, somebody else contracts this virus, somebody else passes away. You got to put other people before yourself.

Also, there are ways to do it anonymously. Speaking to the media, you don’t have to give your name. I chose to [give my name]. But if you’re not [willing to put your name out there] there are ways to do it anonymously and hopefully it still has some value to it.

[You can also] reach out to somebody who’s willing to do it and support them. Support those who are speaking up. You’re still a part of the fight just by doing that. If you’re a supporter, a consumer, or an employee. If you’re supporting a cause, you’re still a part of the fight,

MEHRAN: Right. I’ve already seen that there’s this Reddit page where anonymous Amazon employees across the US and possibly beyond, are saying how many people in their warehouses have COVID. And so in parallel with the heat map that you generated, they’re providing that information, but all of that is anonymous and those people are not risking their jobs to get that information out.

CHRIS: Yeah. Absolutely.

MEHRAN: Well, I think that pretty much covers it. That’s been really interesting and very motivating for all of us to see what you’ve managed to achieve with this. And it will be really exciting to see where it goes. Chris, thank you so much for your time and I will let you go back to it now and finish the rest of your protest action today.

CHRIS: Absolutely. Stay tuned everybody. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

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