- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Earlier this week, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos emailed white-collar Amazon workers encouraging them to cancel meetings today in celebration of Juneteenth. “Please take some time to learn, reflect, and support each other,” he wrote. “Slavery ended a long time ago, but racism didn’t.”
Unaddressed was the issue of Bezos’s warehouse workers, who continue to toil in the company’s facilities in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Christian Smalls, the Amazon worker who was fired after organizing a walkout at the company’s Staten Island, New York, warehouse, and John Hopkins, an Amazon worker at the company’s San Leandros, California, facility who was suspended after passing out union flyers on May 1, about their Juneteenth plans. Smalls will be speaking at the ILWU’s port shutdown in Oakland, California, while Hopkins is organizing a vigil in Richmond, California.
Tell me what you’ve got planned for Juneteenth.
I’m rallying with ILWU, the longshoremen union out here who control the ports for the West Coast, and they’re going to be shutting down all twenty-nine ports in celebration of the ending of slavery and to focus awareness on everything that’s going on with police brutality. We’re rallying, protesting, and we’re going to be marching to Oscar Grant Plaza — that’s where Oscar Grant was shot down by police at Fruitvale Station.
We’re going to be bringing out some speakers like Angela Davis, Danny Glover, Boots Riley, myself, some original Black Panthers, the presidents of the local unions. I also just released a video of all Amazon employees or essential workers to call out of work, join some local protests or demonstrations that are going on in their community, and boycott the company on that day as well.
Do you expect Amazon workers to call out of work?
I know a number of them myself personally that are calling out. I don’t know how many will be calling out nationwide, but me and my organization, we’re spreading the word. Everybody that I spoke to who works for the company said they’re not going to work that day. In the Bay Area, I’m hoping to see them out here, and I’m hoping my being here will bring more workers out. We’ll see where it goes from there, but I do know a number of people that will be calling out.
Did you see that Jeff Bezos has said to Amazon white-collar employees that they should, more or less, take the day off for Juneteenth?
Yeah, it’s a bunch of bullshit. What about the warehouse workers? The warehouse workers are still out here getting sick, and still dying. We just had a death a few days ago. So it’s just a bunch of bull — I can’t stand to even look at it sometimes.
What’s the significance of Juneteenth?
Well, it’s not even about the day anymore. This is about this whole time that we’re going through right now, this pandemic that we’re dealing with. I’m not even talking about COVID-19 — the pandemic that we’re dealing with in the black community started over four hundred years ago. And it’s time to put an end to that, too.
So, June 19 is not actually the ending of slavery — it was the beginning to the end of slavery. This moment right now that we have with police brutality and systemic racism, and capitalism, and everything that’s going wrong with this country, I just feel like this day can be used to bring awareness and bring people together. And definitely going forward, to take this day and turn it into a national holiday, so that we can continue doing this from here on out.
Do you have specific demands on Amazon that you’re going to raise?
The same thing I’ve been saying: they need to take care of their employees. And what I mean by “take care of them,” I don’t mean just spend money on PPE [personal protective equipment] and implement safety guidelines — that’s the bare minimum. What they need to do is a wage increase. Everybody should be paid a minimum wage that’s affordable for the cost of living, not just what the state or the county minimum wage is. They need to give a substantial amount of money for everybody to survive. Since Jeff Bezos made $30 billion in the last two months, why are you taking away money?
I’m going to be demanding that they bring back the $2 hazard pay permanently. I’m going to demand that they increase the minimum wage — possibly to $30 an hour. And I’m going to demand that they make everybody shareholders again. They took that away from everybody, myself included. And I also demand that they reinstate all the black and brown employees, myself included, that they terminated over the course of the pandemic. So I have a small list.
What are your plans for the day tomorrow?
I’m planning to go to the march down at the port, we’re supporting that. We stand in solidarity with others who are trying to bring attention to, in particular, the connection between the systems of slavery in history and what’s going on now. Then we’ll be heading over to our vigil.
Can you tell me the significance of Juneteenth for you as a day for these actions?
It’s supposed to be a celebration. The idea is that we’re celebrating emancipation. And I think, in so many ways, we can see that that is a promise that hasn’t really been kept. There are so many ways that the conditions of black society are still impacted by systems of racism and — not directly slavery, but certainly systems and institutions that are descended from slavery.
To put a finer point on it, with the George Floyd protests, there’s an inflection point in terms of people’s willingness and ability to talk about systemic issues instead of just talking about instances: you know, was George Floyd a good guy or bad guy? Did the cop rightfully feel threatened? Is this stand-your-ground law fair? All of these different, miniscule details or peeks at the thing, as opposed to looking at the larger systemic issue — that’s kind of the point, that there’s a bigger systemic issue. The problem is that we devalue black lives. And that has gone unheeded for so long.
So I think picking Juneteenth as a day to protest really makes the point that it’s not only about police brutality; there are other parts of the racist systems and structures that continue to oppress us.
Where does Amazon fit into those systems?
For me, Amazon is almost the worst part of it in that, on the one level, they’re going to tell you, “Hey, we stand in solidarity with black folks.” But if there’s one person who has more power to change the lives of black people in general in the United States, it’s Jeff Bezos. He unilaterally could do more for black lives than pretty much anyone else on their own could do. The reason he doesn’t is because he values profits over that.
I think, in so many of the ways that Amazon treats its black workers, there are parallels to the way that police brutality operates — it’s all microcosms of the same systems of racism, where there’s a way to justify it if you look at it in a particular lens, but then if you look at the bigger systemic issue, it becomes more difficult to justify.
So, in a similar way, Amazon does the same thing as what the cops do when they try to make it about a very particular thing. So in my case, the very particular thing is: Did I violate social distancing policy on May 1? That’s the only question they want to be asked, because the only answer they want is “yes,” so they can move on to terminating me. So I think there are a lot of parallels in the way that police treat black people in general and how Amazon treats its workers.
In a certain sense, it’s actually more insidious that Amazon treats its workers this way, because they face no accountability whatsoever. The cops do it, and there’s a chance that we might record it and get it on videotape. It’s almost impossible to get anything on record with Amazon because they control the relationship between them and the employee to such an extent.
Bringing it to a concrete example of my own experience, what I’m going back and forth with Amazon about right now is the ability to bring a scribe [to a meeting with HR]. The reason that I need a scribe is because I don’t feel like they’ll be honest. I think what they’ll do is try to ignore the bigger picture so that they can justify what they want to do. As a person who has ADHD, when I feel emotionally upset, it makes it really difficult for me to concentrate. So I’m going to have two people talking to me in a room behind closed doors about an issue that’s emotionally fraught for me, and I’m expected to not only be able to conduct that conversation, but also take accurate notes and keep track of what they’re saying to me. That’s really difficult as a person with ADHD, and so I’ve just asked for a pretty minor accommodation.
But what Amazon has done is stonewalled me; they’re not engaging in the process as they’re supposed to by law. They said “No, we’re not doing this, your alternative is that you can have one of our people take notes for you.” And I’ve explained to them why that doesn’t work. And they can’t even respond to me on the substance of the accommodations, let alone on the bigger issue of the situation I’m in. It is these minute ways that they control our life.
To bring that story to its point: what’s happening is my suspension is technically over, but now they’re not allowing me to return to work until I get the accommodation sorted out with the accommodations team, but they’re also not going to pay me for the time that it takes the accommodations team to figure out their part of this. That is a method of applying pressure to me economically, that is designed to force me into going into the meeting without the ability to take any real notes. And then, at some point in the future, they can be able to nitpick about something and fire me, and they’ll never have to actually address the question of: Was I actually there that night to complain about my union flyers [being confiscated by Amazon management]?
I think that illustrates the bigger problem, which is the way that they use their power. There’s clearly an imbalance in the power between a huge corporation and an individual like myself. And the problem is that Amazon wields that in such a way as to make it so that I have literally no voice in the relationship, and they get to dictate every aspect of it. It’s just unfair.
Can I ask how the organizing has been going? Have you been organizing your coworkers to come out to the vigil?
The issue there is the fear is real. Since I was suspended, people that I’ve been close to have been targeted by Amazon for minor things, and these are people that have never had an issue in a disciplinary sense before. So people are rightfully afraid, and I haven’t really been encouraging people to come out. I’m definitely letting people know about it, but I’m not necessarily asking people to be there because that’s a big risk to take. I’m out there because my name is already out there, I can afford to do it, my entire family will be there supporting me, and some other folks from different workers’ collectives will be there. We hope to have somebody from the DSF6 Amazon group represented. We’re building a coalition of people from a lot of different places but not necessarily just Amazon employees because they are subject to retaliation — even though they shouldn’t be, the reality is that they will be.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Juneteenth?
I want to say that we’re looking at tomorrow [Juneteenth] as a turning point in the relationships between workers and employees at Amazon and more generally. For a long time, it’s been workers who have been on the back foot, allowing employers to have their way. I think it’s time that workers start taking their power back. We see this as an opportunity to take the tempo back and be the ones dictating the pace from here on out.