Leaked notes from an internal meeting of Amazon leadership obtained by VICE News reveal company executives discussed a plan to smear fired warehouse employee Christian Smalls, calling him “not smart or articulate” as part of a PR strategy to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”
“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,” wrote Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky in notes from the meeting forwarded widely in the company.
The discussion took place at a daily meeting, which included CEO Jeff Bezos, to update each other on the coronavirus situation. Amazon SVP of Global Corporate Affairs Jay Carney described the purpose to CNN on Sunday: “We go over the update on what's happening around the world with our employees and with our customers and our businesses. We also spend a significant amount of time just brainstorming about what else we can do” about COVID-19.
Zapolsky’s notes also detailed Amazon’s efforts to buy millions of protective masks to protect its workers from the coronavirus, as well as an effort to begin producing and selling its own masks. So far, the company has secured at least 10 million masks for “our operations guys,” with 25 million more coming from a supplier in the next two weeks, Zapolsky wrote.
Amazon fired the warehouse worker Smalls on Monday, after he led a walkout of a number of employees at a Staten Island distribution warehouse. Amazon says he was fired for violating a company-imposed 14-day quarantine after he came into contact with an employee who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Smalls says the employee who tested positive came into contact with many other workers for longer periods of time before her test came back. He claims he was singled out after pleading with management to sanitize the warehouse and be more transparent about the number of workers who were sick.
Zapolsky’s notes from the meeting detail Amazon’s plan to deal with a wave of bad press and calls for investigations from elected officials following the firing of Smalls. They also show top Amazon brass wanted to make Smalls the focus of its narrative when questioned about worker safety.
“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.”
They discussed encouraging Amazon executives to use Smalls to discredit the wider labor movement at Amazon. Employees at the warehouse, known as JFK8, launched an effort to unionize in 2018.
In his notes, Zapolsky wrote that there was “general agreement” on this point among the other attendees of the meeting. (Zapolsky’s notes also mention SVP of worldwide operations and customer service Dave Clark and SVP of human resources Beth Galetti.)
In a statement to VICE News, Zapolsky said his “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,” he said. “I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”
The notes also reference Amazon’s concerns about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the economy, and its own efforts to ramp up testing and lab capacity both within the company and around the country. They discussed the benefits of testing all employees, even asymptomatic ones.
“That can have benefits both for the system and for our employees,” Zapolsky wrote. “Every test we do is incremental and is one less test that existing resources have to do.”
Amazon also weighed ways to generate a PR win from their mask stockpile with “different and bold” ways of giving away surplus masks to hospitals and independent grocers. “If we can get masks in quantity it’s a fantastic gift if we donate strategically,” Zapolsky wrote.
“Another idea for giving masks away — give 1,000 masks to every police station in the country,” Zapolsky wrote, adding this “reminds folks it’s not just medical workers who need these.”
They discussed alternative ways to obtain or produce protective masks, as well as working with other companies that have capacity to make them.
“There are ways of making FDA approved surgical and other masks from fabric and we’re working with those manufacturers as well,” Zapolsky’s notes said.
The consensus at the meeting was that the CDC would be recommending everyone wear masks if not for the lack of supply. “CDC’s hesitancy to recommend masks has been to manage supply (though that’s a bad reason to sacrifice scientific integrity),” Zapolsky wrote.
Amazon has also begun efforts to to produce masks itself. While the company has a “line of sight” on a supply of N95 masks, the notes said, Amazon is “starting to put together internal efforts” for mask production, though this is described as “more of a nine month type project.”
Zapolsky’s notes imply the company’s attempts to purchase N95 masks from China fell through. “China has deemed N95 masks as ‘strategic,’” Zapolsky wrote. “They’re keeping them for optionality. They also want to use them for ‘diplomacy.’ The masks in China that we thought we had probably got redirected by profiteers.”
Cover: Amazon employees hold a protest and walkout over conditions at the company's Staten Island distribution facility on March 30, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)