Christian Smalls, the former Amazon Staten Island warehouse worker who was fired from his job and went on to co-found the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), is petitioning to lead a class action lawsuit against the multinational e-commerce company.

Smalls wants to be able to bring a lawsuit against Amazon that alleges the company did not provide proper safety precautions for its majority people of color line workers who worked in person throughout the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smalls claims that, in contrast, white workers—who held most of the management level positions at the company’s Staten Island warehouse, which is officially known as the JFK8 Amazon Fulfillment Center—had their health and safety concerns better attended to.

When Smalls worked at JFK8, he organized fellow workers to take part in a walkout on March 30, 2020. Workers were upset when they realized that JFK8 employees with COVID symptoms were being urged to continue coming in to work as long as they had not yet tested positive for the virus. Smalls’ lawsuit alleges that Services LLC fired him because he led the walkout. His suit also claims a racial factor in his firing, which became evident, his attorneys claim, when Amazon’s general counsel sent a memo to CEO Jeff Bezos characterizing Smalls as “not smart or articulate.” 

U.S. District Court Judge Rachel P. Kovner dismissed Smalls’ initial lawsuit on Feb. 7, 2022.

Kovner’s opinion stated that “Smalls has not pleaded facts providing even minimal support for the inference that his race played a role in Amazon’s decision to terminate his employment. Smalls alleges that Amazon fired him within two hours of his speaking at a large rally, and that Amazon invoked his failure to comply with a quarantine order as the basis for his dismissal. He offers no allegations to support an inference that race played a role in Amazon’s decision. Smalls points only to a letter allegedly sent by Amazon’s general counsel to Amazon’s CEO a few days after Smalls’ firing, which ‘characterized Smalls as “not smart or articulate” and suggested that Amazon make him the face of its workers criticizing its response to the pandemic,’ … But the letter does not address the company’s rationale for terminating Smalls’ employment. Instead, it addresses the company’s public-relations strategy in response to criticism of its COVID-19 protocols. More critically, the letter does not mention or otherwise refer to Smalls’ race.”

Smalls’ attorneys brought the case to the  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit this week, to see if he can go forward with his allegations. 

Amazon is weathering weeks of labor activity

Besides the racial bias lawsuit from ALU’s founder, Amazon has been weathering weeks of labor activity. ALU members protested the appearance of Amazon CEO Andy Jassy at The New York Times’ annual DealBook Summit on Nov. 30. The summit is a gathering of the most prominent names in the financial world, and gives business VIPs a place to talk about investment deals and financial plans. “If Jassy comes to New York he should come to bargain a contract with Amazon workers, not bluster or practice union-busting,” Smalls said before the event began. “It’s time that Amazon and the company’s CEO respect the rights of workers and join ALU in improving working conditions, rather than acting as an uncaring, B.S.-spouting, corporate law-breaker.”

And during so-called “Black Friday,” which follows the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, the company saw its workers worldwide take part in a Make Amazon Pay campaign. Actions coordinated by UNI Global Union and Progressive International brought together groups such as Data for Black Lives, Ethical Consumer, IndustriALL, and Tax Justice Network Africa (TJNA), to join with more than 80 trade unions, civil society organizations, environmentalists and tax watchdogs in a daylong protest against how Amazon is conducting its business. 

The coalition was created to push Amazon, as a global e-commerce giant, to pay its workers fairly—particularly so that workers see pay increases that are in line with the increasing wealth of the corporation—and respect its labor unions by allowing workers to organize. They want the company to pay its fair share of taxes so that it actually helps to financially contribute to society, and make a sincere commitment to environmental sustainability by, for example, committing to zero emissions by 2030. 

Organizers said they had strikes at “18 warehouses in France and Germany, worker walkouts in the U.S. and protests in over 35 countries around the world.”  

“We all know that the price of everything is going up, as is the temperature of our planet. Instead of paying its workers fairly, its taxes in full, and for its damage to our environment, Amazon is squeezing every last drop it can from workers, communities and the planet,” commented Daniel Kopp, the Progressive International’s Make Amazon Pay coordinator, regarding their campaign:

“As workers around the world struggle with the cost-of-living scandal, Amazon, despite its enormous profits, is forcing real-term pay cuts on its workers. It shirks its taxes, and its CO2 emissions are soaring—up 18% in 2021—even though Amazon only counts the emissions of 1% of its products sold.

“In the face of the cost-of-living scandal, global debt crisis and climate emergency, we are coming together to Make Amazon Pay.”

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel responded to the Make Amazon Pay campaign and labor actions in a statement sent to the AmNews: “A coalition of organizations are continuing to encourage protests at Amazon. These groups represent a variety of interests, and while we are not perfect in any area, if you objectively look at what Amazon is doing on these important matters you’ll see that we do take our role and our impact very seriously. We are inventing and investing significantly in all these areas, playing a significant role in addressing climate change with the Climate Pledge commitment to be net zero carbon by 2040, continuing to offer competitive wages and great benefits, and inventing new ways to keep our employees safe and healthy in our operations network, to name just a few. Anyone can see for themselves by taking a tour at one of our sites.”

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