- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Amazon works with police departments across the country, offering them facial recognition services in the form of Ring, a video-doorbell app. The company has contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and seeks them with the US military. In recent months, Amazon has fired several black warehouse workers in what appears to be retaliation for organizing.
Clearly, Amazon is no racial justice organization. But yesterday, in the midst of nationwide protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the company suggested otherwise.
“The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop. Together we stand in solidarity with the Black community — our employees, customers, and partners — in the fight against systemic racism and injustice,” says a statement posted to Amazon’s Twitter account.
— Amazon (@amazon) May 31, 2020
I showed the statement to Christian Smalls, the black worker who was fired from JFK8, an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, after organizing a walkout over concerns about the facility’s lack of preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic. Notably, a leaked memo revealed that Amazon’s general counsel referred to Smalls as “not smart or articulate.”
His response was as follows:
That’s disgraceful for them to even say such a thing when they oppress their own workers of color. Everyone that was fired over the last two months were black or brown or women . . . Ask Amazon the . . . ratio of black people who hold VP or regional positions in that company.
Shortly after hearing from Smalls, I interviewed John Hopkins, a thirty-four-year-old black Amazon worker from the Bay Area who was recently suspended for violating the company’s social distancing rules. Like Smalls, however, he claims that this is merely a pretext, and that his suspension — and possible upcoming termination — is instead retaliation for organizing. The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Why don’t you start by telling me about what happened to you? What were you doing, and how did Amazon respond?
Basically, I was bringing union flyers into work. I was trying to get people to sign a union authorization card — not for any particular union, but as a demonstration that we wanted a union — so that we could then petition to have a union at our particular location. So I put together a website to collect people’s signatures, and then I handed out this flyer that directed people to the website. I started doing that back in late January.
So I brought the flyers. I had stashed them in a locker in the break room, and within a week, they disappeared — but I also started noticing that managers were hanging out in the break room, which they never do. It seemed like every time I was in the break room, I was seeing managers.
The instigating incident was in late April. I printed out another set of the flyers. I put them in the break room one day, and I put a bunch of candy out with them. When I came back, I noticed that all the flyers were gone, but all of the candy was still there — which is exactly the opposite of what I would have expected if it were my coworkers taking the stuff.
I was sure that this was management deliberately removing them — which I understand. They’re a corporation, they have the right to do whatever within their own walls. But my thing about it was that on the bulletin board as you walked in the building, there was a flyer that had been up there pretty much the entire time I’ve been working at Amazon — which is six months or so. It’s for an outside company, not Amazon officially. Those flyers were up on that board and got left up, but any time that I went to put my flyers up, they would always get taken down.
That night — April 25 or April 26 — I got fed up with the fact that they were trying to hide my flyers but also wouldn’t engage about them, wouldn’t acknowledge that they even existed. So I talked to one of the managers about it, and I also sent an email to the site HR, basically saying, “Hey, these other flyers aren’t getting taken down, but mine are, and this seems unfair,” and I didn’t get a response for that. I still haven’t received a response to this day.
Four or five days later, May 1, I had been following what was happening with Chris Smalls and was a little riled up from that. So I came in, and I hadn’t decided by the time I came to my shift whether I was gonna participate in the sickout or not. But then I got there, and somebody had chalked the ground outside, which spurred me on to actually participate, so I decided to clock out. And I went to sit in the break room.
But they created this new rule during COVID-19 that, essentially, you couldn’t be in the break room more than fifteen minutes after your shift. So I went to the break room and was just planning on being there until the end of the lunch period so that I could hand out the flyers — because I figured if I wasn’t there, they would just disappear, and nobody would actually get to see them. So my plan was just to stay until the lunch period, and then go home.
One of the managers came in and was pestering me while I was there. So I told her, “Hey, I’ve been bringing in these flyers, and they’ve been disappearing. I brought it up with [a particular manager] last week, but I haven’t heard back.”
At that point, she went to go talk to HR. She came back with somebody else with her, and they were basically trying to get me to leave. And I just said, “Hey, give me a commitment. Tell me you’re gonna get back to me about my flyers — at least acknowledge that this conversation happened in some way.” I even asked them that night to write me up so there would be some record of the conversation, but they were unwilling to do that.
The following day, I was suspended. Now, technically, they’re right, I did disobey an order from my manager, but the reality is that I was making a complaint about my right to organize being violated. There’s no way that it’s a fair investigation without that information.
They said I was being suspended for a social distancing protocol violation. I understood what they meant by that, and I was willing to fight on those terms. So I sent them an email trying to nail them down to that position, to clarify that that was the reason that I was being disciplined, but I didn’t get a substantive response for two weeks.
For another two weeks, we were going back and forth, and then they had an investigator call me. She hadn’t been told anything about the flyers, so I told her, “I’m not going to have this conversation until you’ve got more of a complete idea of the story.” Without that, I had the feeling that it was going to be looked at in a narrow, myopic way that would allow them to have an excuse to fire me. So I fought for two weeks to get an investigation in writing, as opposed to verbal. I told them I wasn’t willing to do [a verbal investigation], and we finally agreed that I would send a written statement.
As it turns out, the day that I was supposed to give the written statement was the day before the shareholder meeting. So I shared my statement as both a question to the shareholder meeting — because I happen to be a shareholder — and as a response to the investigator at the same time. And I also happened to get written up in the New York Post and Business Insider. Only after all those things happened did I finally get a response from the investigator. That was two or three days ago.
It feels like they’re pushing me out and squashing any opportunity for workers to have a voice. And that’s amid all the rhetoric, like that tweet.
That rhetoric is nice, but at the end of the day, what you’re really doing is violating the law to keep workers from being able to bargain collectively with you so that you can suppress their wages. It’s hard for me to take anything else seriously.
What do you expect to happen?
I fully expected them to fire me until it got some press coverage. But I’m pretty sure that’s what’s coming — I just think I may have avoided getting fired right away because of the other bad press they’re getting.
What led you to create this website, to help organize coworkers?
I’ve been getting that question a lot, and I don’t know that I have a really solid answer for it except I just feel that workers deserve to have a say in their working conditions.
I’ve always run into this thing [at other jobs] where it feels like you’re almost not even seen as human, like you’re just supposed to tolerate any sort of treatment, and that’s just the way it is because you can’t afford to get fired. I was sick of having that feeling.
By the time I got to Amazon, it was just a no-brainer that we need more of a voice here. In general, it feels very much like they expect us to be machines. Even the scan rate, the fact that we’re supposed to be scanning four packages a minute if we were actually hitting their targets. That’s just not realistic when you actually break it down and try to do four per minute and keep that pace. It’s not actually physically humanly possible unless you’re at a full sprint the entire time, sweating, and you have the athletic skills of Michael Jordan.
Barring those things, I really think it’s close to impossible to hit those numbers on a consistent basis, which isn’t to say that there aren’t people who do, but they’re very much the exception rather than the rule. So it just generally feels like there’s a need for us to have more of a say in how the work goes and not to just be numbers on paper for whoever is making these decisions — to actually be humanized and made real.
How did your coworkers respond to your flyers?
For the most part, it was positive, in the sense that people felt the need for it — but at the same time, there was an atmosphere of fear. Everybody knew that if you were seen as actively organizing, you would be retaliated against; that was very much the attitude that everyone had. And it turned out to be true because, here I am suspended, and you could say it was for social distancing reasons, but I think after a month of suspension, they’d have figured that out.
Are you connected with any organizations, or were you acting on your own when it came to creating this website and starting to organize?
No, I was acting on my own. If anything, I reached out to unions to try to get some backup and didn’t really get any response. I started with the Teamsters, but I also reached out to the [International Longshore and Warehouse Union, ILWU], and I didn’t really get a response from either one.
What’s the worst thing about working at Amazon? It sounds like the pace is what stresses you out the most.
No, my top priority — and now that I’m connected with other workers in the Bay Area, our top priority — is a living wage. I’m sure you know the Bay Area is not cheap: $15 an hour, while it may be double the federal minimum wage, is the minimum wage here. And we want to be able to support ourselves in the Bay Area. That was, for me, always the motivation.
One, having a voice matters. But unions can get you more money. If the idea is that I trade my labor for these dollars, it seems pretty clear that we’re not getting what we’re worth.
A lot of people talk about how hard it is to communicate with their coworkers in Amazon facilities. You’re a good example of the problems with communication — you tried to hand out these flyers — but do you have any other comments on the surveillance of workers?
I want to point out that there were a few things that happened all at the same time, and I think they’re significant in the context of organizing.
One was that they changed the lockers in the break room so managers could search them in between shifts. Another was the rule that I was charged with violating, that you can only be in the break room for fifteen minutes. That makes it basically impossible for you to have a conversation with your coworkers.
The third thing was a policy they created saying you could only bring stuff that you absolutely needed for work. And that one in particular I saw as targeted toward stopping flyering. I’m sure they’ll say it’s because you can transmit COVID-19 on people’s clothes, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m pretty sure that the real reason is to prevent people like me from bringing in flyers.
How is that enforced?
Oh, it’s not. That’s another big point — none of these rules are ever enforced, unless they’re targeting somebody. I’ve never heard anyone else being reprimanded for not social distancing, but it’s impossible to social distance in the warehouse — it’s not actually feasible.
So the only time I’ve ever heard of people getting in trouble is when management wants to get rid of them for one reason or another.
Is there anything else you want to say that I didn’t ask about?
I’m working with a bunch of other workers at this point, and what we’re working towards is an umbrella organization that helps workers organize for themselves. It’s called Workers’ Collective, and it isn’t just Amazon workers. The intention is to be deliberately not a part of any of the established unions, just a worker-led movement. We’re planning a vigil for Juneteenth to honor workers who died from coronavirus and also draw attention to the fact that racism isn’t just present in police violence but in all facets of society.
The biggest thing to me, along the lines of Amazon’s tweet, is that I really think it’s important to tie together all of the ways that racism works. What the general counsel said about Chris really offended me, because it was such a stereotype about black men.
I see parallels there and in the conversation around George Floyd. What I hope to bring to people’s awareness is the fact that implicit bias is the thread that ties it all together. If you are more likely to believe that I, as a black man, am duplicitous or shady somehow, then it’s really easy when they fire me for you not to believe that what I’m saying is valid and to believe that they have a valid reason to do so. It happens from police stops to hiring to disciplinary action at work. It’s really important that we start having that conversation. I feel like we may be getting close to that moment.