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Ex-Amazon employee on Bezos stepping down: ‘Nothing will change’

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Chris Smalls, Founder of The Congress of Essential Workers, joins Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers to break down what the CEO shake-up at Amazon means for the company's workers.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Now Jeff Bezos is stepping back from his role as CEO of Amazon to pursue some of his passions, like his space exploration company, Blue Origin. But how is this going to impact how Amazon runs or how its employees are treated?

Well, we're joined now by Chris Smalls, founder of TCOEW, The Congress Of Essential Workers. Now Chris was fired by Amazon after organizing a protest over worker safety. So Chris, I want to ask you what was your reaction to this news when you heard that Jeff Bezos would be not totally stepping down, but really taking a step back and moving into this role as executive chairman.

CHRIS SMALLS: Yeah, you know, it was for myself, personally, you know, I felt like, you know, a moral victory. But systemically and fundamentally, nothing changed. You know, I'm taking words from Joe Biden. Fundamentally, nothing is going to change.

You know, we know that being an executive position, he still holds all the power there. He's still going to be in the decision making room. And, you know, we still have to apply the pressure that we have been from the beginning of the pandemic. So, for me, nothing's changed. It's just some news, breaking news, for everybody else.

KRISTIN MYERS: Now I hear what you're saying, that especially with his continued involvement in the company, that really, nothing is changing, except the person at the top. Curious to know if you have anyone or know of folks that have worked under Andy Jassy that might indicate what kind of leader that he would be, at least towards his-- towards some of his employees.

CHRIS SMALLS: I'm not aware of anybody that worked directly under him. I know what I can speak about is that, you know, we remember what happened last year. Tim Bray, who worked for AWS, he resigned. So maybe there will be some better insight coming from him. But I can tell you, who replaced him, I don't know. You know, that's a good question about who's replacing Andy Jassy there at AWS.

For him to make this sudden change with Jeff Bezos, or for both of them to make this sudden change in leadership, that's the real question, though, the reason why. But, you know, I think I can speculate on him and definitely say that, you know, the negativity and the stories that have coming out-- came out recently regarding the company and regarding Jeff Bezos, I think may have been a combination of everything.

KRISTIN MYERS: Now, you know, Bezos says that he wants to focus on-- I mentioned Blue Origin a moment ago. But he also wants to focus on a lot of his philanthropic efforts. And it reminded me of the phrase that charity starts at home. I'm curious to know if you think that perhaps his increased involvement in some of those efforts might, in some way, trickle back to workers over at Amazon.

CHRIS SMALLS: Everything that he does affect Amazon workers in a sense. I don't know why he would want to step down after 27 years, especially during the pandemic. But I can once again speak to the fact that it's probably because of the negativity that he would see for the past 10 months.

And also, you know, focusing on Blue Origin, that's great and wonderful, but what's the underlying message there? You know, is he planning on leaving the planet? We don't know. You know, these are the things that we hear about. You know, if it's so, it's kind of alarming to know that the man hasn't been held accountable for his actions or negligence when it came to the coronavirus and Amazon workers.

And we've seen a report about yesterday, about the $61 million in tax-- I mean in tips that they stole-- stole-- once again, stole from their own workforce, their own Amazon flex drivers. So we-- once again, my fight is to uplift the stories and voices of all the Amazon workers that still work for this company. It doesn't matter who's the CEO, whether it's Andy Jassy or Jeff Bezos.

KRISTIN MYERS: So let's talk about that. We have heard of thousands of Amazon workers that contracted coronavirus over just the last year. Now we actually had on Amazon's VP of Public Policy, Brian Huseman, on just a couple of days ago. And he was talking about all of the benefits that many Amazon workers receive. He also talked about warehouse and worker safety when I asked him about that.

So talk to me. I know that you were fired after organizing a protest over worker safety during this pandemic. For your friends that are still working for Amazon, your former co-workers that are still there, what are they telling you about life at Amazon right now, especially as we see the company bringing in record profits?

CHRIS SMALLS: Yes, 10 months later, we're still in the same situation as we was when I was fired. Workers are still working in distress. Workers are still contracting this virus at a rapid pace because there's no social distancing in these warehouses. It's impossible. And as a result, two weeks ago, I just got in contact with a family from Virginia. They lost a loved one, a mother who was 38, left behind a 12-year-old daughter, who's now motherless, who was a COVID tester at one of the warehouses in Virginia.

And it's disheartening to know and hear how the disconnect between these VPS and executives and spokespeople that work for Amazon, that they are not understanding that's not the reality of the situation inside these warehouses. My coworkers, former co-workers, friends, extended family, who I like to call them, they are still coming out to me every single day. I get emails, messages, social media, et cetera, from workers all around the nation, complaining about their working conditions and experiences and what this company has done and destroyed--

KRISTIN MYERS: Right.

CHRIS SMALLS: --when it came to their family. You know, things are not right.

KRISTIN MYERS: So Chris, then, you know, I have about a minute here. I guess, if you could quickly tell us if those workers could speak with no longer Bezos, but Andy Jassy taking over this new role, what would they say to him that they want? What can the company do to make things right for its employees?

CHRIS SMALLS: Well, as we still deal with this pandemic, you know, the first thing they could do is, shut down the warehouses that have cases. You know, the only way you stop the spread of this virus is you separate the workers. There's no way you can socially distance inside of an Amazon facility. That is 100% true, you know, 100% fact that there's no way. It's impossible.

So we're asking as, you know, the new CEO, if you really care about your workers and their safety, close down the facilities that have cases in them, pay their families paid medical leave, pay your workers hazard pay, bring that back. They took that away back in June. And also provide the protections that workers need while they're working throughout the course of this pandemic. That's a start.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right. All right, Chris Smalls, founder of TCOEW, The Congress Of Essential Workers. Thanks so much for joining us today.

CHRIS SMALLS: Absolutely. Thank you.