by Ronnie Estoque
“If we don’t get it, shut it down!” was among the shouts that rang through the streets of downtown Seattle yesterday as Christian Smalls led a Black Friday protest against Amazon. Smalls, a five-year employee of the Seattle-based online retail giant, was fired in March of this year for speaking out about workers contracting COVID-19 at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York.
Smalls, who since has become an outspoken critic of Amazon’s labor practices, formed his own organization called The Congress of Essential Workers (T.C.O.E.W.) to raise awareness about Amazon’s widely reported labor practices. During the pandemic he led a protest of about 50 Amazon workers to urge the company to close down the Staten Island facility after positive cases of COVID-19 were made public. He was then fired by Amazon following the protest, and on November 12, decided to file a class action lawsuit against the company for a termination he views as unjustified.
“They [Amazon] took away the hazard pay back in June; they took away the unlimited paid time off, and people are still contracting this virus,” Smalls said. “They [Amazon workers] deserve a pay increase; essential workers should be paid as a necessity.”
Smalls believes that online consumers should be more aware of the exploitative labor practices of companies such as Amazon that have employees working 10+ hour shifts standing and sorting and packing consumer goods — labor that has been boosting Amazon’s sales to record numbers during the pandemic.
Yesterday at around 2 p.m., Smalls, alongside five other members of the T.C.O.E.W., led a protest and rally outside the South Lake Union headquarters of Amazon calling on the company to increase wages of all warehouse workers to $30/hour, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to all distribution center workers, and to stop the surveillance of workers attempting to unionize. Smalls and other members of the T.C.O.E.W. — all of whom are either current or former Amazon workers — flew into Seattle from the east coast earlier this week.
“We want a wealth tax … taxing the billionaires and the one percenters so we can redistribute that money back to the communities,” Smalls said when asked about Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s efforts to Tax Amazon and other large corporations in the city. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has seen an increase in his net worth by about $69 billion since the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year.
An April report from Vice showed that Amazon discussed a plan to smear Smalls, with Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky stating the following in notes from a meeting forwarded to company employees: “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.”
Hundreds gathered in support of the T.C.O.E.W. protest, which began at the steps of 410 Terry Avenue North and eventually made its way to the Amazon corporate headquarters. A land acknowledgement for the Duwamish people was given, and a local Black artist also played a folk song on his guitar to kick off the protest.
Several local labor union members were in attendance supporting the action, including Professional & Technical Employees Local 17 member Joel Vancil. He believes that Amazon workers at fulfillment centers should be able to unionize and that Washington State needs to pass a steeply graduated income tax on millionaires and billionaires.
“I’m here today because Amazon is running a sweatshop,” Vancil said. “They need to start paying their workers a living wage — they need to stop treating their workers as a disposable part in their enterprise.”
Anne Slater, member of Teamsters Local 763 and the feminist group Radical Women, is an essential food service worker at a local school district. She currently works handing out free meals to students, a program that began shortly after Gov. Jay Inslee announced the statewide shutdown and the nation’s economy took a serious hit.
“I think that it’s crucial that essential workers — people who are working at places like Amazon, at our grocery stores — get decent treatment.” Slater said. “People are risking their lives to bring a paycheck home and a lot of people can’t afford to not go to work.”
Slater believes that essential workers should be provided PPE, sick leave, and hazard pay. She believes that Amazon workers should have a right to unionize, citing how her union was able to negotiate the needs of her work peers with upper management.
A recent report published by Motherboard details several leaked documents that show that Amazon’s Global Security Operations Center has relied on Pinkerton operatives to spy on warehouse workers and labor unions, as well as monitoring environmental activists and other social movements. In May, the Emerald reported through an anonymous employee citing internal HR messages that five Amazon warehouse workers at the Kent Distribution Center (BFI4) had contracted COVID-19 despite what the company said were adequate coronavirus precautions.
Smalls’ protest in Seattle is one of many protests that occurred globally in sync with the Black Friday consumer holiday. An international coalition of labor activists groups including UNI Global Union, Progressive International, Oxfam, Greenpeace, and many others united to form Make Amazon Pay. According to Business Insider, the group has planned actions and protests in Brazil, Mexico, the US, the UK, Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, Poland, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Australia.
Smalls confirmed that the T.C.O.E.W. has been in correspondence with organizers in the Make Amazon Pay campaign, whose full list of demands can be downloaded here. The T.C.O.E.W. is planning a Cyber Monday protest at 2 p.m. Nov. 30 outside Bezos’ mansion in the Seattle suburb of Medina.
Ronnie Estoque is a Seattle-based reporter. He is driven to uplift marginalized voices in the South Seattle community through his writing, photography, and videography. You can keep up with his work by following his Twitter account @RonnieEstoque.
Featured image by Ronnie Estoque.
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