Amazon.com Inc.’s firing of a walkout organizer has spurred criticism and calls for reinstatement by the largest labor groups in the U.S.
Labor leaders and dozens of New York state and city elected officials urged Amazon to reinstate Chris Smalls, the leader of a walkout Monday over health and safety conditions at the company’s Staten Island, New York warehouse. Smalls was fired after the protest, in which workers asked Amazon to close the facility for cleaning after cases of Covid-19 were confirmed within its ranks. Amazon said Smalls was dismissed for violating a company-ordered quarantine after coming into contact with someone infected with the disease. Smalls said he was fired for his activism.
“We write to you today shocked at reports that Amazon warehouses are not practicing the protocols necessary to protect the well-being of your workers and of the public,” said the letter, addressed to Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos and other executives, and signed by the leaders of the AFL-CIO, United Food & Commercial Workers International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, among others. Amazon didn’t immediately comment on the letter. The unions also called for independent monitors to investigate whether Amazon facilities adhered to guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for social distancing during the pandemic.
As coronavirus cases pop up in Amazon’s 800,000-strong workforce, some employees in warehouses across the country have expressed concerns about the company’s commitment to their safety. Workers at sites in Chicago and near Detroit walked off the job after the Staten Island protest. Amazon has said it ramped up cleaning in its facilities and is sending home, with pay, people diagnosed with Covid-19 and those who they came into close contact with. It has also temporarily boosted wages and overtime payments, and said employees can take unpaid time off without penalty through the end of April.
The firing of Smalls had already drawn responses from other New York officials. On Monday, New York State Attorney General Letitia James said her office is “considering all legal options” in response to the termination, which she called “immoral and inhumane,” and is urging the National Labor Relations Board to investigate. On Tuesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he had ordered the city’s Commission on Human Rights to “investigate Amazon immediately” to determine if Smalls was retaliated against.
The AFL-CIO is the main U.S. labor federation, with 55 unions that together represent 12.5 million people. The letter is also signed by presidents of five of the largest U.S. unions, including the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union. Those two unions, which aren’t part of the AFL-CIO, together represent about 3 million more workers. The document is a sign of union leaders’ increasing focus on Amazon as a key target and reflects greater cooperation within the labor movement as they take on the behemoth firm.
Amazon and labor groups have a frosty relationship. The retailer has managed to avoid organized labor in its ranks in the U.S., even as it grew into the country’s second-largest private employer in the U.S. A similar group of unions in February asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Amazon’s market power.
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