Amazon execs, in leaked memo, sought to tar fired employee who organized coronavirus walkout

The Amazon logo on the facade of one of their office buildings. (Dreamstime/TNS)
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By Benjamin Romano The Seattle Times (TNS)

As Amazon grapples with coronavirus infections among workers at a growing number of its facilities, senior leaders sought to discredit the organizer of a walkout in New York this week, according to an internal memo.

Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky, in notes from a meeting of top executives circulated within the company and leaked to VICE News, called walkout organizer Chris Smalls — who was fired earlier this week — “not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us vs. him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.”

Zapolsky, an Amazon employee for more than 20 years and a member of Jeff Bezos’ senior leadership team, said in a statement released Thursday by Amazon that his comments were “personal and emotional” and driven by frustration at Smalls. Amazon said Smalls was fired for failing to quarantine himself after being exposed to another employee with COVID-19 — the illness caused by the virus — among other violations. “I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me,” Zapolsky said.

Smalls himself and union leaders have called his firing retaliation for raising concerns and helping organize worker protests of Amazon’s policies and practices in response to the coronavirus pandemic. New York government officials have launched investigations.

Labor unions, whose efforts to organize Amazon workers outside of Europe have been largely unsuccessful, see a chance to do so amid the unrest within the company’s ranks over its handling of the outbreak. The Staten Island warehouse has been a focus of organizers since 2018.

Zapolsky’s meeting notes suggest Amazon is taking those organizing efforts seriously and strategizing at the highest levels to deflect them.

“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 wrote. “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”

Zapolsky’s notes were from Wednesday’s daily senior leadership meeting on the COVID-19 response. But the company’s attacks on Smalls’ credibility began as early as last Sunday evening in a corporate statement mentioning him by name, highly unusual for Amazon, ahead of the Monday walkout. Two other senior Amazon leaders — communications chief Jay Carney and operations head Dave Clark — called out Smalls in exchanges on social media with Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, suggesting Smalls “purposely violated” coronavirus safety measures.

Clark, in a corporate blog post Thursday, sought to downplay the scope of the protests earlier in the week. It was his second of the day, having posted earlier about 150 process changes across the company.

“These incidents have occurred at a very small number of sites and represent a few hundred employees out of hundreds of thousands,” Clark said. “We want to be very clear that we respect the rights of these employees to protest and recognize their legal right to do so.”

(Amazon has previously told employees who speak publicly about the company without authorization that they risk discipline, up to and including termination — a prospect that has even greater consequences in a coronavirus-ravaged economy with unemployment rates climbing.)

“At the same time,” Clark continued, “these rights do not provide a blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, and potentially the lives, of colleagues.”

He said the company has “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.”

“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,” Clark said, without mentioning Smalls by name.

Amazon has not provided a tally of employees who have tested positive for coronavirus, or the sites where they work. But a count on Reddit, based on local media reports, put the number at 41 cases across more than 30 U.S. locations, with many more rumored, as of Thursday afternoon.

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