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Interview with Chris Smalls: “The Labor Movement Is Awakening”

Jose del Paso and Tom Trottier from Socialist Revolution interviewed former Amazon employee, Chris Smalls, who was fired following his attempt to organize a strike at one of the company’s Staten Island facilities over health concerns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. After terminating his job, Amazon attempted to use him as a scapegoat to tarnish organizing efforts by Amazon workers nationwide. Chris went on to found the Congress of Essential Workers, an alliance of workers who fight for higher wages and better working conditions for essential workers.

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Socialist Revolution: So, Chris, how long did you work for Amazon? Can you tell us about the conditions that you faced while you were working for them?

Chris Smalls: I started off the company in December 2015 in entry-level positions, and opened up three buildings for them. My first building was a four nine in New Jersey, the second building was built in Windsor, CT, and my last building was in Staten Island [these were large Amazon facilities, as opposed to their smaller operations]. When I started on entry level, I worked hard for about seven months before I was promoted up to a process assistant—which in layman’s terms is pretty much an assistant manager—and I was in that position for the last four years.

In terms of the working conditions, it’s true what they say. These buildings are massive, almost a million square feet. Each facility would be the size of 14 NFL football fields. It was pretty much like walking the state of Rhode Island every single day, as I used to tell my new hires. You have a gym membership? You might want to cancel it because you’re doing about 10 to 12 hours of calisthenics every single day.

Wow, yeah, that’s intense! And when we hear these kinds of reports of some of the working conditions, what did you see when the COVID-19 pandemic was first starting and you first started speaking out about the conditions? What were the conditions then during the pandemic for workers in Amazon warehouses?

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was a very scary situation, seeing this virus transmission from the West Coast to the East Coast every day, and seeing my employees and my department start to, one by one, in a domino effect, become sick with flu-like symptoms: dizziness, fatigue, tiredness. A lot of my coworkers weren’t even showing up to work because they possibly already contracted the virus. At that time, we didn’t have any facemasks. We didn’t have any cleaning supplies. Supplies were very much depleted and no safety guidelines were enforced.

So what I saw was very alarming. I tried to go through the proper channels, and went to my local management trying to ask them, “what are you going to do to protect us?” But Amazon did not have solutions. That’s when I started to take further action. It is actually about a year to the day, more or less. In mid-March, 2020 is when I actually started sending out emails to the health department, to the public, to the media, trying to get some attention from Amazon about that.

Chris, can I ask you about the working conditions there even before the pandemic? Is it like working in a factory? Is there a person that gives you orders on what to do, or do orders come from a computer? You just mentioned 10-hour days. Is that normal? Do you get a lunch break, or breaks in between?

Yeah, well, it is a productivity warehouse all day. I notice a lot of technology that’s in these warehouses and it looks very innovative, if you see it on commercials, it looks huge. It is very much a part of the production warehouse and they treat us like we’re a part of the scene. I was actually the person that had to oversee and place people in certain positions to monitor and track the work and make sure that they’re doing their job for the 10-hour shift. Yes, every shift is 10 hours and you work four days a week. You have three days off. But for the last year, these workers have been subjected to mandatory overtime because of the high demand with Amazon adding to the sales of the business. So they’ve been working 50 hours, 60 hours a week for the last year.

You do get a 30-minute lunch, which is definitely not enough for a 10-hour shift. That’s always been one of our biggest complaints. Our lunch breaks are never long enough. In addition to lunch, they used to have two 15-minute breaks, but from what I’ve heard recently from workers, Amazon actually switched it up. You only get a 30-minute lunch and a 30-minute break. That’s it for 10 hours! They cram everything into one break, and during those 30 minutes you don’t have an efficient amount of time to walk from one side of the building to the other. Once again, that’s a million square feet to the other side. Once you are at lunch? Then trying to fight over a microwave, and then trying to fight over seating in the cafeteria all the time… You wasted about 15 minutes of your lunch time. So it’s not really a real break to me.

It’s always been strenuous, stressful, and definitely an experience like solitary confinement, so to speak. You know, you leave to come to these buildings early in the morning and you don’t see the light of day, no crack at dawn. You get up at five, six in the morning and you work a 10-hour shift. You get out at five, six at night. The sun is going down. You don’t see the light of day. And that is the reality of working there. You have to be physically and mentally prepared to work in those conditions and deal with that.

Besides those two 30-minute breaks, do you get to use the restroom? Do the workers have to wait until their break, or can they take a bathroom break?

So, here’s the catch. You can go take your break to the bathroom any time. They’ll never tell you, “hey, no, you can’t go to the restroom.” But we do have to track that time and they dock that time when you go to the restroom. It is on you to keep track of that time of a maximum of 30 minutes, meaning that for the duration of the 10-hour shift, you can go to the bathroom as long as many times as you want—but if it goes over 30 minutes altogether, totaled up, if your time on task is 30 minutes away from your assignment for the entire ship, then you’re subjected to possibly being written up, or even worse, fired. So that’s the catch. You can go to the restroom anytime you please. But keep in mind that time is being subtracted from your time on rest.

When you walk all the way to the lunchroom, is there actually a cafeteria there? Do they sell food? And I assume you’d have to wait in line if you were going to buy food. That’s more time that’s coming out of your 30 minute lunch.

Yeah, absolutely. There’s a marketplace. You know, they have a marketplace where you can purchase food. They also invite certain vendors to come there, like certain buildings have Chick-fil-A that will show up with the vendor service, or they’ll have a local pizza show up. But yeah, you’re right. Imagine waiting in line behind two hundred, three hundred people that also have to go to lunch at the same time. And that’s what you have to deal with. Again, you also have to deal with fighting over a microwave, fighting over seating in the cafeteria. Then you have to also make enough time to get online, which is always a hassle. It is always hustle and bustle, there’s never a time of relaxation or for you to collect yourself. There’s always productivity, productivity, productivity. You got to get back to your station, got to get back to your station. And that becomes the mindset of an Amazon worker.

And you started speaking out about this and started organizing workers. So how do you think that workers in Amazon can be organized? For example, we’re seeing the push for unionization in Alabama. How did you approach it? These are really difficult conditions that folks are working under.

Yes, in my case, this was a life or death question when you came to know the virus. The person that I was working with? She tested positive. She’s a supervisor. She was around hundreds of employees. And my concern was us bringing this virus back to our communities and our family. So when it came to organizing that situation, it was easy for me to have that type of conversation with the workers at that time last year, we saw the issues, we had seen that there was no solution put forward, and we all wanted to act on it. But now you’re seeing a larger revolution, a larger movement, you know, it is international now.

I think it’s perfect timing because, when it comes to the labor movement in the United States—the unions have been diminished, less than 10 percent of the country’s workforce is unionized. So now these conversations are starting to come to the public eye and they’re starting to resurface inside these facilities again because workers now have the courage to actually form these workplace committees. And that’s where it starts, it just starts with workers having that conversation. And now that workers, activists like myself and others, are out in the public eye and we’re organizing workers and we’re talking to workers, it’s starting to galvanize the entire country—and especially with the union in Alabama, which we’re all watching right now.

Are you involved in the organizing project with the DSU in Alabama?

Well, yes, I support them and I stand in solidarity with them. I’m not a member of the union (RWDSU), but I definitely stand in solidarity with that union. I definitely visited that location. I was down there two weeks ago. I was on the ground. I brought several workers besides myself from different facilities to connect with the Alabama workers. I talked to several workers down there just making sure that they understand the importance of voting for the union, and that this fight is all of our fight. That union has a great opportunity to be the first Amazon facility in American history to be unionized. That’s a very big deal.

Chris, when you were down there, did you talk with some of the leaders of the RWDSU? Do they have a national strategy on how they’re going to organize Amazon, or are they just concentrating on the Alabama drive right now, and then, if they win, they’ll move on from there?

Yeah, right now it is focused on this facility. The way it works at Amazon, you have to do it facility by facility. So their focus is definitely just on this Amazon facility. I’ve been in contact with the union leaders, I talk to them all the time. I spoke to the head organizer down there, Joshua Brewer. I’m a part of their campaigning, so to speak. They have a website now for supporting Amazon workers. There are all these different boards all across the nation, but we’re all on the same page when it comes to amplifying the Alabama campaign right now. So that’s the beauty of it—everybody in the nation right now is focusing solely on Alabama. And whether they’re successful or unsuccessful, we’ll be able to galvanize other facilities across the nation.

When you discuss with people like Joshua Brewer or people in the union, what is their overall strategy in terms of winning? This is a huge company with a huge amount of warehouses all around the country, as you well know. If you organize one warehouse, that is a victory. But since it’s such a huge octopus, they can move stuff around and isolate that facility, if they need to. About 10 years ago, people were talking about trying to organize Walmart. I remember up in Quebec the workers had actually organized one of the stores, and Walmart just closed that store. They just said, “fine, you’re organizing this store, well we’re closing it,” and they just shut it down—and that was the end of it. So I’m wondering, is the union thinking about this in terms of a strategy, if they do win? To be able to defend that victory, you have to expand the struggles, because otherwise the company can just move around this facility, and maybe even close that particular facility, or cut it down in terms of size and staff.

I can tell you this: I know that’s always been in the back of everybody’s mind, that Amazon can close the facility down. In the last twenty six years of their existence, they hardly ever closed down a facility, and I doubt they didn’t know that these fulfillment centers make millions of dollars a day. And the reason that they’re in the location of these facilities, especially fulfillment centers, it’s highly doubtful that they are closing down. That would mean 6,000 people losing their job instantly, at a time when Amazon is already under scrutiny for the level of exploitation they subject workers too, and for the workers they already fired, like myself and other activists. So that’s the last thing I think they’re going to do, to close down a facility with 6,000 workers, especially with an 85 percent black population. That’s just bad publicity right now. So I don’t think that we have to worry about that.

I think our biggest focus is, after this building is unionized, what is the next one? I think the reason why Jeff Bezos stepped down is that he doesn’t want to sit down with these union leaders. He has seen this coming and there is nothing he could do to stop it. Now, I think the labor movement is awake, the working-class people are awake. And now that we have these politicians and in order to reach the highest plateau—the “chief in command” is Joe Biden and he already spoke up about it. There’s no way they can stop what’s coming to them.

Let’s assume what you’re saying is correct—it sounds reasonable to me that they won’t shut this place down. But then if you have one place unionized trying to negotiate a contract, the one place would have only so much leverage in a big company like this. So what is the union’s strategy about being able to spread that? Because, as you know, if the workers are trying to negotiate wages and benefits, they need leverage, and in a big company like Amazon, leverage means thousands of workers. How many workers does Amazon have?

Amazon has 800,000 workers in the US, and about one million around the world. So, from that you have one small group of about 6,000 workers unionized. But in order to get leverage, to really get something good, they’re definitely going to have to spread the organizing beyond that place. From what I’ve been told, the RWDSU isn’t even focusing on the contract negotiations. Right now, I think their leverage is the fact that we do have outside support and international support. They have the shareholders of Amazon, about 75 investors, that already wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos saying that he needs to stop the union busting. And I think it is up to us and up to the public to make sure that we are protecting the union as well. So they have enough publicity and support as far as leverage. I’m not really sitting in on those discussions, but I think they’re in a good spot right now. I think they have enough support worldwide where they’ll be perfectly fine once we get to the next phase, which we’ll find out after March 29, 2021. I think the labor movement is awakening and organizing.

US labor history includes a lot of big and sometimes very militant battles, especially in the 1930s. The labor movement took on some of the most powerful corporations that were dead set against unions, and the workers were eventually able to successfully organize. Unfortunately, a lot of this history isn’t well known. From your perspective, I think these lessons from history can be a valuable resource for union activists and other organizers—to study the successes and failures of the labor movement in the past.

That’s what I’m doing right now as we speak. Even if we have a perfect opportunity, we have to always think, “what if it doesn’t happen? What if we’re not successful this time around?” So I’m actually working on my campaign up here in New York City simultaneously as we focus on Alabama. The reason I went to Alabama is to see what the union was doing on the ground, to actually see how they organized and how they connected with workers. What are the missed opportunities? What are the opportunities that we can learn from? And I took my notes and I had my team document certain things, and we learned a lot. Now our focus is to see this thing through to the end. And if it’s not successful, we learn from our mistakes, and we learn how we can move forward after the vote.