Amazon execs labeled fired worker 'not smart or articulate' in leaked PR notes

Julia Carrie Wong
Photograph: Ralph Freso/Reuters

Amazon executives denigrated a fired warehouse worker as “not smart or articulate” in a meeting with Jeff Bezos, according to a leaked memo obtained by Vice News.

Related: Dear Jeff Bezos, instead of firing me, protect your workers from coronavirus | Chris Smalls

Chris Smalls, who had worked for Amazon for five years, was fired shortly after he helped organize a work stoppage at the company’s warehouse on Staten Island, New York, in protest over a lack of protective gear and hazard pay for employees. Amazon claims it fired Smalls for “violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk”.

Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, in notes from a meeting of top executives obtained by Vice, wrote: “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.”

The meeting is held daily to brief Bezos, the chief executive, on issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. Jay Carney, Amazon’s senior vice-president of corporate affairs, described it on CNN as a “brainstorming” meeting.

Chris Smalls, center, wears a bandana while leading workers in a protest at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Staten Island on Monday. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Zapolsky added: “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.

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

Smalls’ termination has drawn widespread condemnation from labor supporters and politicians, including the New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, and Bernie Sanders, who called the firing “disgraceful”. Retaliation against workers for engaging in collective action related to their working conditions is illegal under federal law.

Writing in the Guardian on Thursday, Smalls said he thought he was “targeted” by Amazon because he had received media attention for organizing the protest. He also alleged that Amazon failed to disclose a worker’s illness to the rest of the workforce , prompting him to contact public health officials and eventually organize the demonstration.

“I am getting calls from Amazon workers across the country and they all want to stage walk-outs, too,” Smalls wrote. “We are starting a revolution and people around the country support us.”

Amazon says it asked Smalls to remain home for 14 days after he had “close contact” with another worker who was diagnosed with Covid-19, and that by attending the protest he was putting other employees at risk.

The company has continued to push this narrative on Twitter, with Carney, a former press secretary for Barack Obama who joined Amazon in 2015, engaging in back-and-forth about the issue with Sanders and others.

On Wednesday evening, Carney decried “folks on Twitter who respond to facts and ideas they don’t like with ad hominem vitriol”.

Zapolsky, the Amazon executive who called Smalls “not smart or articulate”, released a statement following publication of the remarks, which read: “My comments were personal and emotional. 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. I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”

Dania Rajendra, the director of Athena, a coalition of labor and community groups campaigning against Amazon, decried the memo.

She said in a statement: “Hundreds of Amazon workers are telling the public about the risk Amazon poses to their health, their families and the communities they live in – and we’ve got Amazon execs, working from home, trying to fix the PR problem instead of the public health problem.

“Amazon top brass chose tired, racist insinuations and snarky tweets. A better choice would be to make a plan that takes worker and public health seriously.”

Smalls released a statement responding to the leaked memo Thursday evening.

“Amazon wants to make this about me, but whether Jeff Bezos likes it or not, this is about Amazon workers – and their families – everywhere,” he said. “Instead of protecting workers and the communities in which they work, however, Amazon seems to be more interested in managing its image … This is not about me. This is about all of us.”