Amazon whistleblower Chris Smalls is creating a nonunion nationwide organization of essential workers.
The plan is to help them from facing another pandemic where they are “unprotected, underpaid, without hazard pay or sick time leave,” he said. With a patent pending and a web site in development, Smalls is starting The Congress of Essential Workers, or TCOEW, a rank-and-file committee that is going to be looking out for essential workers. The aim is to have personal protective equipment, safety guidelines and transparency from companies at all times.
“We want to build an organization that will be able to build a contract that is beneficial for all of the employees,” Smalls said. The group will initially focus on Amazon employees. But Smalls hopes other companies and employees will support and join the organization.
On May 1, Smalls was instrumental in helping to organize a one-day walkout at Amazon Inc., Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. and other companies in the U.S. that employ essential workers. California, New York and New Jersey generated the largest turnouts, but outposts in Texas, Kentucky and Ohio were also represented, he said.
Smalls was terminated from Amazon, which he joined in 2015, hours after organizing a protest about health and safety concerns at a warehouse in Staten Island. Amazon said he was terminated for putting the health and safety of workers at risk, by violating social distancing and coming in close contact with an associate diagnosed with COVID-19.
Smalls said, “I was just a concerned supervisor, trying to speak out for the voiceless and my employees. I was catapulted into this media spotlight because of what I’ve done. I didn’t really have any guidance. I was just speaking out against health and safety concerns.”
While unions have shown their support for Smalls and he plans to create a “union-like structure” for TCOEW, he believes the group should be controlled by the employees regionally. Acknowledging employees should “absolutely” be able to unionize, Smalls said, “They want change. It doesn’t have to be a union, though. I don’t believe that one union will be able to pretty much control a workforce of this nature.”
Amazon alone has 600,000 employees, Smalls said. At least 600 Amazon employees have reportedly been stricken with the coronavirus. In a “60 Minutes” segment about Amazon’s treatment of its workers, senior vice president of worldwide operations Dave Clark said on-air Sunday, “The actual, sort of total number of cases isn’t particularly useful because it’s relative to the size of the building and then the overall community infection rate.”
Amazon is not disclosing the number of its confirmed cases at this time, according to a company spokeswoman. Rates by site vary almost entirely based on the communities in which associates live, the spokeswoman said. She said infection rates are at or below the communities’ average in nearly all of its facilities, and that is the case with quarantine rates as well. “Quarantine rates are a critical part to understanding what’s happening in the workplace. It shows that our hard work at social distancing is paying off,” she said.
Any time there is a confirmed diagnosis of an employee at an Amazon facility, the company sends a text alert to every person who works at that site. They are informed when the infected person was last in the building even if it was more than a month ago, the spokeswoman said.
Amazon did not have any updates Monday regarding whether essential workers’ $2 raise and overtime pay will be extended beyond May 16, she said.
Amazon has said it has invested $800 million to better protect workers. Trying to enforce social distancing by videotaping employees and using AI to study their movements is one initiative under way at Amazon.
Smalls said Monday he has been in touch with the office of New York attorney general Letitia James, who is investigating why he was terminated. Last month he spoke with Cory Booker, who was among the nine U.S. senators who sent a letter last week asking Amazon’s chief executive officer Jeff Bezos to explain why Smalls and other protesters were terminated.
From Smalls’ perspective, shutting down the buildings where employees have tested positive for at least two weeks is necessary. “They can clean as much as they want. They can spend as much money — $4 billion on robots, technology and this and that. That doesn’t do anything, if the people are carrying the virus. Shut down the building. Separate the people for a minimum of two weeks. That’s what we asked for in the beginning. That’s what we’re still asking for. People are still getting sick and dying.”
Smalls is working with a team of current and former Amazon employees, as well as ones at Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, Instacart, FedEx and Shipt.
Smalls has started a GoFundMe page for unpaid workers. Although he has a mask, he wears a black bandana as a statement, just as he did at the Staten Island Amazon protest to show that workers needed PPE. “Everything that Amazon has done started after me. Staten Island was the first to have the temperature check-in, the defogging of the building,” he said.
At Hackensack High School, Smalls was a student athlete for basketball and track. He had a run as “a good underground rapper” in the Tristate area appearing briefly with big-name talent like Meek Mill. Getting married and having twins changed that career path.
As for what lifelong friends say now, “It’s funny. They know I was a rapper. [They say], ‘I guess your voice was meant for something else.’”