Christian Smalls was a supervisor at Amazon’s JFK/Staten Island warehouse until Spring of 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. When he noticed workers had been falling ill on the job with severe flu-like symptoms, he approached his local HR department to inquire about workplace protection measures against Covid-19.
As he describes it, the company was unresponsive, merely giving employees the option to stay home without pay if they felt unsafe at the warehouse. Upon returning to work, Smalls noticed a visibly sick worker who, when he approached her, informed him she had gotten a Covid test. He sent her home, and hours later, a meeting between supervisors and managers, and learned of another positive case in the building two weeks prior. Upper management instructed Smalls not to alert the other employees, for fear of “causing a panic.”
That was Smalls’ last day on the clock at Amazon. After that, he took it upon himself to start organizing his fellow employees, who held a protest on March 30 outside the warehouse. Hours later, Smalls was fired.
His story got national press, and he was therefore the subject of a smear campaign orchestrated at the highest levels of Amazon, including Jeff Bezos himself, as well as former Obama press secretary Jay Carney, now senior VP at Amazon, who tweeted the following in response to Bernie Sanders’ criticism of their handling of Smalls’ case:
. @SenSanders, I’m confused. Thought you wanted us to protect our workers? Mr. Smalls purposely violated social distancing rules, repeatedly, & was put on Paid 14-day quarantine for COVID exposure. 3/30 he returned to the site. Knowingly putting our team at risk is unacceptable. https://t.co/WR49t6Qkij— Jay Carney (@JayCarney) April 1, 2020
The irony, which makes this Tweet especially Orwellian, is that Smalls’ protest was specifically designed to achieve a safer workplace environment. To then fire him on the grounds that he “repeatedly violat[ed] social distancing rules” is beyond absurd.
After being fired, Smalls became a full time activist and labor organizer, whose efforts continue to this day. He’s appeared on numerous podcasts, television shows, and online programs, and has been interviewed by dozens of major publications about his journey thus far and the path forward.
He founded the Congress of Essential Workers, who have organized several direct actions over the past year, and whose campaign continues in 2021. He also hosts the Issa Smalls World YouTube show and podcast.
He recently joined us on our podcast to discuss his journey, the upcoming Amazon union vote in Brimingham, Alabama, and the challenges and opportunities of building a 21st century labor movement. Listen to our full conversation by clicking the player below:
Photo: Fibonacci Blue