‘He’s Not Smart or Articulate’: How Amazon Planned to Smear Fired Strike Organizer

Chris Smalls, center, wears a bandana while leading workers in a protest at Amazon's fulfillment center in Staten Island, N.Y., calling for the company to improve working conditions at the warehouse as COVID-19 continues to spread, Monday March 30, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

By Keya Vakil

April 2, 2020

According to leaked meeting notes, Amazon wanted to make a former employee who was fired earlier this week “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”

Amazon company executives openly discussed a plan to smear fired warehouse employee and strike organizer Christian Smalls, calling him “not smart or articulate” as part of a cynical strategy to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement,” according to leaked notes from an internal meeting of Amazon leadership obtained by VICE News.

“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,” Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky wrote in the notes from the meeting, which Vice reports were forwarded widely within the company.

The discussion took place at a daily meeting held to update the company on the coronavirus situation. CEO Jeff Bezos was in attendance.

Jay Carney, the company’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, told CNN’s Brian Stelter on Sunday that these daily meetings are held to discuss updates “on what’s happening around the world with our employees and with our customers and our businesses.”

“We also spend a significant amount of time just brainstorming about what else we can do,” Carney added.

Zapolsky’s notes from the meeting describe the company’s strategy for how to respond to a wave of public criticism and demands for investigations from elected officials after Smalls’ firing.

“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 wrote. “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”

Zapolsky and his colleagues also discussed encouraging Amazon executives to use Smalls to discredit the wider labor movement at Amazon. Employees at the Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, launched a unionization effort in 2018.

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According to Vice, Zapolsky wrote in his meeting notes that there was “general agreement” on this strategy among the meeting’s other attendees.

In a statement to COURIER, Zapolsky said his “comments were personal and emotional.”

“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 said in an emailed statement. “I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”

Amazon fired Smalls on Monday after he led a walkout of employees at a Staten Island distribution warehouse. Smalls and his fellow employees raised concerns about the company’s decision to keep the warehouse open even after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Smalls wanted more transparency about the situation and for the company to sanitize that warehouse.

Smalls believes he was fired for his organizing activities, while Amazon said he was terminated for not abiding by social distancing guidelines. It is illegal to fire an employee for union organizing. 

Smalls was “found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14-days,” an Amazon spokesperson told COURIER earlier this week. “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite on March 30, further putting the teams at risk. This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues.”

Within hours of Smalls’ termination, New York Attorney General Letitia James took the company to task and called for an investigation, calling the firing “immoral and inhumane.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio quickly ordered an investigation to determine whether Smalls was fired for organizing a strike. 

“I’ve ordered the city’s commission on human rights to investigate Amazon immediately to determine if that’s true,” de Blasio said at a news conference Tuesday. “If so, that would be a violation of our city’s human rights law and we would act on it immediately.”

Vice’s report comes just one day after Amazon Senior Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs Jay Carney and Senior Vice President of Operations Dave Clark defended the company’s decision to fire Smalls in tweets directed at Sen. Bernie Sanders, who expressed support for the striking workers. 


Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Amazon’s General Council, David Zapolsky.


CATEGORIES: Coronavirus | Jobs | Safety


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