Former Amazon worker and labor rights activist Chris Smalls spoke on Wednesday, April 21, at a Zoom event hosted by the University’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (Wes ACLU) and the Wesleyan United Student Labor/Action Coalition (USLAC). The talk was jointly moderated by Wes ACLU member Grace Kuth ’24, who first reached out to Smalls about a speaking engagement, and USLAC member Harry Bagenstos ’22. Wes ACLU President Ariel Cohen ’22 and Wes ACLU Financial Manager Keeli Johnson ’22 were also involved in planning the event.
At the talk, Smalls discussed Amazon’s unsafe working conditions and inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic; he also described his efforts to unionize Amazon workers over the last year and obstacles such as anti-union action by Amazon.
Cohen expressed enthusiasm for organizing the talk and the opportunity to hear from Smalls.
“Everyone from the ACLU and also USLAC, who are working on the event, has been so amazing and so dedicated,” Cohen said in an interview with The Argus. “It really was a group effort, so I’m really excited to have such an awesome team.”
In March 2020, Amazon allowed workers who exhibited symptoms of the COVID-19 virus to continue coming to work until they received positive test results. Without the possibility of paid sick leave, ill employees continued working and contributing to the spread of COVID-19. At a meeting in late March, managers told Smalls, who was then a supervisor at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse, not to inform workers that someone who had recently tested positive for COVID-19 had come to work. When Smalls urged managers to shut the facility down to prevent further spread of the disease, they refused. These unsafe policies spurred Smalls to take action.
“As a person with leadership, I couldn’t come home and lay my head on my pillow knowing that [coworkers] who I considered my extended family were still going to work and getting sick and possibly, even worse, dying,” Smalls said at the event. “These people [and] I [had] spent 40, 50, 60 hours a week [together] for years. There was no way I was going to be complacent with taking care of just me.”
Beyond this, Smalls stated that labor conditions were unsafe even before the pandemic. He said that when he was an employee on the warehouse floor, responsible for “picking” or selecting items from shelves, the daily quotas were grueling.
“We had to pick about 5,000 of these items a day,” Smalls said. “We’re talking over 400 items an hour. Less than seven seconds [per item] to keep up with your hourly rate.”
According to Smalls, he and other employees walked about 30 to 60 miles each day. He confirmed that, as many rumors suggested, Amazon employees are often unable to use the restroom for extended periods of time because they have to finish tasks so quickly.
The COVID-19 pandemic made these working conditions even worse.
“Workers were coming in [with] dizziness, fatigue—some were even vomiting at their work stations, and we just would clean it up and and put them right back on station,” Smalls said. “We had no PPE. No cleaning supplies. No real safety guidance. They were putting up little signs saying, ‘If you feel sick or don’t feel safe to come to work, stay home,’ with no pay…. Obviously, we have financial responsibilities, so that wasn’t sustainable.”
These conditions made Smalls decide to start fighting for his fellow employees’ rights. He stopped coming to work as a supervisor and started trying to bring his coworkers together as a union.
“I sat in the cafeteria for 10 hours a day…telling the workers that they had possibly been exposed, and we all marched into the general manager’s office every single morning to voice our concerns, interrupting his meetings.”
After he had been doing this for several days, facility managers singled out Smalls to tell him to quarantine, even though many other workers at the plant had been exposed to the employee who tested positive for COVID-19.
“By the end of the week, they decided to quarantine just me,” Smalls recalled. “Out of 5,000 people, I was probably the second or third person to get quarantined…. That told me, right there, that they were using it as a silencing tool to stop me from organizing workers.”
Smalls decided to break this quarantine and lead a protest against unjust working conditions on March 30, 2020. Two hours after the protest, he was fired, and he decided to begin fighting for labor rights throughout the United States. Over the next few months, he organized protests at mansions owned by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, as well as Amazon’s headquarters.
Since being fired from Amazon, Smalls has founded an organization, The Congress of Essential Workers.
“The Congress of Essential Workers is a secure, collaborative network of essential workers and allies fighting for the elimination of billionaires, wealth redistribution, and protecting the working class from exploitative CEOs like Jeff Bezos,” the organization’s website reads.
Smalls also clarified that, in addition to the broader Congress of Essential Workers, he is fighting to organize a new national union specifically composed of Amazon workers, unlike other unions in American history that have been organized around professions rather than specific companies.
Smalls continued to emphasize the importance of collaboration among activists for social justice. In response to a question about whether any existing organizations combined workers’ rights movements and racial justice, Smalls stated that he hadn’t seen an organization combining workers’ rights and racial justice but aspired to combine the two movements in his own work.
Smalls himself has encountered racism, especially in his capacity as a labor rights activist, from trolling on Twitter to more serious threats.
“I have gotten calls [and] emails from white supremacists…hate mail and death threats,” Smalls said.
Smalls also condemned the waste created by Amazon’s business model and expressed a strong belief in environmental justice.
“Not only do I see a relationship [between labor rights activism and racial justice], we also stand in solidarity with the environmental movement,” Smalls said. “If we don’t address these issues, social injustice, police brutality, [the environment], and the labor struggles of the working class, we can’t expect the one percent class to go forcing the politicians [to take action].”
In discussing the need for collaboration between various movements for justice, Smalls expressed concern that workers, especially at Amazon, are sometimes unaware of labor abuses and union efforts in other parts of the country. He discussed the recent union vote in Bessemer, Alabama, on April 9, 2021, where workers voted against the union by a large margin. He believed this was a result of poor timing; if the plant had not been so new, employees might have had time to develop the connections to their coworkers that would help the union get votes.
“Try talking to a new hire, as a new hire, on trying to unionize,” Smalls said.
In contrast, Smalls described the warehouse in Staten Island, where he had known coworkers for several years, as being much more open to collective action.
“I didn’t even have to say too much. Workers were flocking to us, saying, ‘I’m ready,’” Smalls said.
He pointed out that the nature of Amazon jobs makes it hard to keep up with news events, including labor efforts in other places.
“That’s the disconnect of being a worker of Amazon,” Smalls said. “You work long hours, you come home, you’re not turning on the news. You’re not getting on social media…. You’re eating dinner, taking a shower, taking of your kids if you have some, and you’re going to sleep, because you’re going to do the same thing again tomorrow.”
Smalls mentioned the Protecting the Right to Organize Act that is currently under consideration in Congress, which would make it more difficult for companies to stop unions from organizing. He also pointed out that President Joe Biden could sign an executive order with a similar effect, and he encouraged attendants to support this action. In response to a question from Kuth, he advocated for boycotting Amazon until working conditions improve.
“[Amazon is] a drug that you’ve got to wean yourself off of,” Smalls said. “One-click buy—it’s a luxury…. But you don’t think about the process.”
He described the strain that quick delivery, which consumers have begun to take for granted, puts on warehouse workers.
“You’re killing the individual at the end of the day. The ones who are suffering are the ones who have to go home at the end of the day with back pains. That’s what people don’t think about.”
Smalls continued stating that current Amazon users can take small steps toward engaging completely in the boycott.
“If you don’t want to quit all the way…start off by just canceling your Prime,” Smalls said. “Start off by ordering less…any type of boycotting that you can do. And stand in solidarity with the workers until things get better…. If our stories don’t resonate, I don’t know what else will.
Smalls stated that physically attending protests as well as online engagement were helpful to the movement. He mentioned that The Congress of Essential Workers was @tcoew on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and provided his personal Twitter account, @shut_downAmazon.
Note: Grace Kuth is a Staff Writer at the Argus.
Anne Kiely can be reached at email@example.com.