After firing Chris Smalls, who helped organize a warehouse worker strike at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York facility over novel coronavirus safety, Amazon executives publicly attacked him on Twitter. Now we might know why. Leaked meeting notes obtained by Vice News lay out a plan for executives to smear Smalls and make him the focus of the company’s effort to discredit a growing labor movement inside the company.
“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,” said David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, in the meeting notes, which Vice News reports were forwarded throughout the company.
“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 continued. “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”
Zapolsky confirmed the authenticity of the memo by explaining his comments: “I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me,” he said in a statement given to the The Verge. But instead of apologizing for denigrating Smalls, he continued to attack him using the same strategy outlined in his memo. “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.
An Amazon spokesperson said the company could not confirm or comment on the authenticity of any email or memo from Zapolsky.
Smalls helped organize the warehouse walkout that took place on Monday to protest the company’s handling of COVID-19. Smalls and other workers were upset at how Amazon has been dealing with unsanitary warehouse working conditions in the event a worker is diagnosed with the illness.
Amazon has only closed facilities when being forced to do so by government authorities, deciding instead to instruct workers to stay at home and maintain normal operations. Workers have complained that Amazon has not properly informed employees about infections, and they accused the company of avoiding sanitary procedures unless forced to shut down facilities for deep cleaning.
Last week, Amazon shut down a returns processing warehouse in Kentucky after three employees tested positive and the governor forced the site to close. Earlier this month, a sortation center in Queens, New York, was shut down for cleaning after workers walked out to protest the handling of COVID-19 cases at the facility.
On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) harshly criticized Amazon on Twitter for its handling of the situation, writing, “It’s disgraceful that Amazon, which is owned by the richest man in the world, is not only failing to protect its workers but has now fired a worker for protesting dangerous conditions.”
This prompted two Amazon senior vice presidents (SVPs) to publicly respond to Sanders with lines of argument that appear consistent with Zapolsky’s recommended PR strategy. Dave Clark, Amazon’s SVP of global operations, accused Sanders of being “misinformed again” and said Smalls “violated social distancing rules multiple times.”
Jay Carney, a former press secretary in the Obama administration who is now Amazon’s SVP of global corporate affairs, wrote, “Mr. Smalls purposely violated social distancing rules, repeatedly, & was put on Paid 14-day quarantine for COVID exposure. 3/30 he returned to the site. Knowingly putting our team at risk is unacceptable.”
Carney, who has become especially combative on Twitter of late when talking to members of the news media, proceeded to engage with a number of replies to his tweets accusing critics of being “pathetic” and responding with “ad hominem vitriol,” he says.
In a blog post published late Thursday, Clark officially responded to the controversy in what is Amazon’s most direct response to the ongoing wave of employee protests and criticism over its handling of worker safety. Clark says Amazon respects “the rights of these employees to protest,” but he goes on to defend the firing of Smalls and further frame the issue as a workplace safety matter. He also indirectly accuses Smalls of putting “the heath of others at risk”:
We want to be very clear that we respect the rights of these employees to protest and recognize their legal right to do so. At the same time, these rights do not provide a blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, and potentially the lives, of colleagues. It is vitally important that we keep people safe during this pandemic, and one of the primary ways we can do that is to ensure everyone at our sites is taking precautions, such as social distancing, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting surfaces. We have taken and will continue to take strong actions to enforce compliance with our health and safety programs at all levels of the team, from front line employees through senior leaders. This is not about any one individual. When anyone on our team at any level purposely puts the health of others at risk, we will take swift, decisive action without concern about external reaction. We did not, and have not ever, terminated an associate for speaking out on their working conditions, but we will act swiftly with individuals who purposely put others at risk.
Smalls has disputed the claims, saying he was the only person of multiple workers who interacted with the worker who tested positive. He also has disputed the timeline of events, saying Amazon only instructed him to begin self-quarantining shortly before the strike, despite having come into contact with the worker who tested positive nearly two weeks prior.
“I am outraged and disappointed, but I’m not shocked,” Smalls said in a statement at the time. “As usual, Amazon would rather sweep a problem under the rug than act to keep workers and working communities safe.”