Amazon lawyer calls fired strike organizer 'not smart or articulate' in meeting with top execs

Key Points
  • An Amazon executive attempted to discredit a Staten Island warehouse worker who was fired after he organized a walkout, according to a leaked memo obtained by Vice. 
  • In the memo, Amazon SVP and General Counsel David Zapolsky called a fired worker "not smart or articulate."
  • Smalls was fired after he organized a protest at Amazon's Staten Island facility on Monday. Amazon said it fired Smalls after he failed to remain in quarantine after coming into contact with an employee who tested positive.
A worker assembles a box for delivery at the Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., April 30, 2019.
Clodagh Kilcoyne | Reuters

An Amazon executive attempted to discredit a Staten Island warehouse worker who was fired after he organized a walkout this week, according to a leaked memo obtained by Vice

The memo includes notes from a daily meeting held by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the company's top executives. It's unclear when the meeting took place.

During the meeting, Amazon SVP and General Counsel David Zapolsky advised the company to make Christian Smalls, the fired Staten Island worker, the face of warehouse workers' growing calls for greater workplace protections amid the coronavirus outbreak, Vice reported. 

Zapolsky said Smalls was "not smart or articulate" and said Amazon should focus on highlighting to the press how "the organizer's conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal," according to Vice.

Smalls said he was fired for organizing the strike, but Amazon said it fired Smalls because he violated social distancing rules after being told to go under quarantine for working near someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Amazon did not confirm what was said in the meeting, but a spokesman provided CNBC a statement attributed to Zapolsky.

"My comments were personal and emotional," Zapolsky's statement said. "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."

In a statement, Smalls said Zapolsky's comments show Amazon "seems to be more interested in managing its image" instead of protecting "workers and the communities in which they work."

"Amazon wants to make this about me, but whether Jeff Bezos likes it or not, this is about Amazon workers - and their families - everywhere," Smalls said. "There are thousands of scared workers waiting for a real plan from Amazon so that its facilities do not become epicenters of the crisis. More and more positive cases are turning up every day ... while they may have fired me, they can't stop all of us from fighting for the protections we need." 

Athena, a nonprofit advocacy group that represents Amazon workers, argued that the memo illustrated that the company is "trying to fix the PR problem instead of the public health problem."

"This insight into top Amazon thinking fails to inspire confidence," Athena Director Dania Rajendra said in a statement. "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."

Amazon faced criticism from legislators, union leaders and warehouse workers about a lack of protective measures for employees who continue to come to work amid the coronavirus outbreak. On Wednesday, workers at a Romulus, Michigan, facility walked out, while workers at a Staten Island, New York, facility staged a protest on Monday. 

Amazon's top spokesperson, Jay Carney, and Dave Clark, who runs Amazon's retail operations, disputed Smalls' firing and the impact of the walkouts in a number of tweets this week. In a tweet on Monday, Clark said: "Today's 'strike' headlines are dramatically exaggerated. Of over 5k employees at our Staten Island site, 15 people participated (<0.5%)."

In a separate tweet on Tuesday, Clark told Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that claims that Smalls was fired for organizing the protest were "misinformed."

@davehclark: You have been misinformed again Sen. Sanders. Mr. Smalls purposely violated social distancing rules multiple times and on 3/28 was put on Paid 14-days of quarantine due to COVID exposure. 3/30 he returned to the site. Knowingly putting our team at risk is unacceptable.

Carney, who served as press secretary under President Barack Obama, also called out critics of the company's response to workers' demands in a tweet on Wednesday: 

@JayCarney: I wonder if folks on Twitter who respond to facts and ideas they don't like with ad hominem vitriol ever pause to wonder why they're not very good at winning people over to their point of view.

Clark published a separate blog post on Thursday in which he downplayed how many workers participated in this week's walkouts, saying they "occurred at a very small number of sites and represent a few hundred employees out of hundreds of thousands." He added that while Amazon respects workers' efforts to speak out and protest, "these rights do not provide blanket immunity against bad actions," referring to Smalls' decision to visit the Staten Island facility while in quarantine.

"This is not about any one individual. When anyone on our team at any level purposely puts the health of others at risk, we will take swift, decisive action without concern about external reaction," Clark said. "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."

The company has touted other safety measures and benefits it has implemented at warehouses in recent weeks, such as increased cleaning and paid leave for employees who are under quarantine after being exposed to someone with the coronavirus.

Amazon employees at multiple facilities who spoke to CNBC argued that the company's efforts aren't enough to keep them safe. They say uneven safety precautions at facilities across the country have sown feelings of distrust between workers and their managers. Workers say they've become worried that managers aren't being honest about whether employees are sick with the virus, so that they can keep the facilities open. 

Staten Island Amazon warehouse workers walk out over coronavirus concerns
Staten Island Amazon warehouse workers walk out over coronavirus concerns