Counterfire's Alyssa Cassata interviews Chris Smalls, who led a walkout at an Amazon warehouse in New York to demand protective gear and hazard pay, for which he was fired
I wanted to start by asking if you could describe the conditions at Amazon warehouses and what it was that pushed you to organise the walkout.
In the beginning of March, it was a very scary situation because you've seen employees at the building get sick, some were dizzy, some were fatigued, some were vomiting, some were light-headed, they couldn't finish their 10-hour shift, they had to get sent to the AmCare office onsite multiple times a day. Some of my colleagues were calling out of work because they were sick. There wasn’t enough cleaning supplies, there wasn’t enough hand sanitizer to clean the equipment, there wasn’t enough Lysol or things of that nature to clean the work stations. So it’s a very scary situation in the beginning of March.
How did you organise the walkout and how did your colleagues receive it?
I returned to work on March 24th after taking some days off. I was fighting behind the scenes at first. I was sending out emails to the Health Department, to the CDC, to the government, and I didn’t get any responses, so I started to take further action. Leading up to the walkout, what I did was on March 24th, 25th, 26th, 27th, every single day that week, I came into the building, off the clock, unpaid, I sat in the main break room, the cafeteria, and I told as many employees as possible the truth about what the company was doing and not telling them that they were working around somebody that tested positive. So, every day I would do that and we would go into the general manager’s office every morning to voice our concerns because there was a building in Queens, New York a week prior that closed down because they had one positive case – they closed down, they sanitized the building, they sent everybody home with pay. I was expecting this building to do the same thing, but they didn’t do that, so that’s what resulted into me taking further action and mobilising the walkout.
What do you think the next steps are for the campaign at JFK8?
Well, we have to continue to fight. The building remains open. There’s way more than the number of cases there were when I was there over a week ago. We’re talking about almost 30,40 cases that the public doesn’t know about. So we’re just continuing to fight and continuing to spread the word. We’re joining forces you could say with other buildings all across the nation, trying to form a coalition so that we can get our voices heard. Because right now there’s the same thing going on at multiple buildings all across the nation and all across the globe. So this is the plan, use this platform and voice other people that’s unheard and try to get the word out there until the government steps in.
What kind of response have you had from other groups and campaigners?
It’s been very supportive. Everybody supported what I’m doing and vice versa, I support them. We’re just communicating and trying to figure out how can we get our voices heard? How can we fight so that this never happens again to front-liners? And that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re just communicating, I’m using this platform that I was given. After March 30th my world kind of changed, it went upside down and basically I’m embracing it now. This is the role that I’m doing, even though I’m unemployed, I feel like I’m employed now because I’m speaking on behalf of everybody, and I want to continue to take everybody’s emails, texts, phone calls, take all their concerns and I want to make sure that these concerns get heard by the right people.
What do you think the coronavirus has actually revealed about society?
Oh wow. Well, this is life or death, so this is something we never dealt with before, but it definitely opened up the eyes to capitalism. When you’ve got these billionaires that’s making profit off human lives. We’re not expendable. And to them it seems that way because we’re unprotected – we’re unprotected, we’re unpaid, and these people are getting richer and richer, and it’s at the expense of somebody at the bottom of the totem pole like me, and it’s not right and it’s time for the people to take the power back. There’s an unbalance of power between the rich and the poor, and this coronavirus unfortunately – but fortunately, is the reason why it’s being exposed now. My heart goes out to all the families that lost loved ones due to the virus, and it’s a sad situation. But at the same time, these billionaires that haven’t really donated money to the medical bill, that’s what they need to do. Those are the real heroes: the nurses and doctors, the front-liners should have been protected as well, and because they haven’t, this is my opportunity to make sure that this never happens again, that we fight for a change, a change that will benefit all of us.
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Alyssa Cassata is a socialist, activist and history student
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