Amazon fired warehouse worker Christian Smalls on Monday after he led a walkout at a Staten Island distribution warehouse calling for safer working conditions. As news of the walkout spread—and as Smalls began talking to major media news outlets about the health and safety issues leading up to the protest—Amazon executives discussed how they would handle a potential public relations fallout. A leaked internal memo, obtained by VICE, shows Amazon leadership was willing to lean deep into racist, union-busting techniques.
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” wrote Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky in notes from the meeting, which circulated “widely” in the company, according to VICE.
Executives in that meeting, attended by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and senior human resources and customer service leadership, also discussed using Smalls, who is black, to undermine a wider push to unionize employees at Amazon. Workers at Smalls’ facility, JFK8 in Staten Island, N.Y., launched a unionization effort in 2018.
“We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” Zapolsky continued. “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”
According to Zapolsky’s notes, there was a “general agreement” on this strategy among him and the other attendees.
Smalls organized Monday’s workout to put pressure on Amazon to prioritize the health and safety of its warehouse workers, who are dealing with a crushing demand in online shopping due to the coronavirus pandemic. After at least one employee tested positive for the coronavirus at the JFK8 facility, workers wanted the site temporarily shut down so it could be properly sanitized, as well as payment for the days they can’t work while the facilities are closed.
Smalls, who worked as an assistant manager at the warehouse, said even more workers have tested positive for the coronavirus than Amazon has admitted.
“Amazon is a breeding ground for the coronavirus. We’re going to be the second wave,” Smalls told VICE earlier this week. “Right now, I’m trying to prevent that.”
The mega-retailer denies they’ve dropped the ball on worker safety, telling VICE it has gone to “extreme measures” to keep workers safe. Amazon also claims they fired Smalls for “violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk,” not for organizing a walkout.
Remarkably, after the memo leaked, General Counsel Zapolsky apologized—while still following the memo’s talking points to the letter.
“I was frustrated and upset that an Amazon employee would endanger the health and safety of other Amazonians by repeatedly returning to the premises after having been warned to quarantine himself after exposure to virus COVID-19,” Zapolsky told VICE in a statement. “I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”
Letting your emotions “get the better” of you—doesn’t sound very smart, now does it?
New York State Attorney General Letitia James called out Amazon for union-busting, as CNBC reports.“In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited,” James said. “At a time when so many New Yorkers are struggling and are deeply concerned about their safety, this action was also immoral and inhumane.” In the last several years, Amazon has aggressively pushed anti-union tactics in response to a growing labor movement at the company.
And contrary to what Amazon would have you believe, Smalls not only has a solid grasp on his employer’s actions and values, he was able to articulate it with absolute clarity.
“Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe,” Smalls said in a statement shared earlier this week. “I am outraged and disappointed, but I’m not shocked. As usual, Amazon would rather sweep a problem under the rug than act to keep workers and working communities safe.”