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Sanders finds prime target in Amazon
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has found the perfect new target for his message about inequality ahead of a possible second run for the White House in 2020: Amazon, the nearly $1 trillion online retailer.
Sanders's attacks on Amazon and its CEO, Jeff Bezos, have won support from the left and the right, elevating his views on the plight of the poor and middle class even amid a soaring economy.
The left-wing firebrand is using his elevated national platform to highlight issues like low wages and poor working conditions at the online retailer, and his attacks are resonating with unlikely allies, like conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
"Bezos and Amazon are really a symbol and a prime example of the extreme wealth inequality that exists in America today," Josh Miller-Lewis, a spokesman for Sanders's Senate office, told The Hill on Tuesday.
Sanders's new campaign comes after President Trump's own attacks against the company and amid growing momentum in Washington to crack down on the tech industry as a whole.
The Vermont senator has been escalating his attacks on the company in recent weeks. Late last month, he began calling on Amazon workers to document their experiences working in the company's warehouses, which it calls "fulfillment centers," and highlighted examples of current and former employees describing poor working conditions and their struggle to make ends meet.
"Amazon is one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, and its owner, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man on the planet, worth over $155 billion," Sanders said in a statement on his website.
"Despite this, Bezos continues to pay many thousands of his Amazon employees wages that are so low that they are forced to depend on taxpayer-funded programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing to survive."
"I think the fact is that many people just don't know what goes on," Miller-Lewis said. "They order something on Amazon and it comes two days later. They just don't know what workers are going through at the company in order to make that happen."
"What we've seen is when we give Amazon's workers a voice on our platform to tell their stories, people are paying attention," he added.
Last week, Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) unveiled a bill called the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act, or Stop BEZOS Act. The bill would tax major corporations for every dollar that their workers receive in public benefits.
"At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, when the 3 wealthiest people in America own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent and when 52 percent of all new income goes to the top one percent, the American people are tired of subsidizing multi-billionaires who own some of the largest and most profitable corporations in America," Sanders said in a statement at the time.
Asked for comment by The Hill, an Amazon spokesman pointed to recent statements the company has put out in response to Sanders's attacks. In an August blog post, Amazon accused him of playing politics and making misleading claims about what it pays workers.
"Amazon is proud to have created over 130,000 new jobs last year alone," the company wrote in the post. "In the U.S., the average hourly wage for a full-time associate in our fulfillment centers, including cash, stock, and incentive bonuses, is over $15/hour before overtime."
Driven by concerns over data privacy, election interference and allegations of bias, lawmakers from both parties have become increasingly willing to challenge Silicon Valley.
Amazon largely escaped that scrutiny because it isn't a social media company and doesn't run political ads. But now the company finds itself singled-out over how it treats its employees and under fire from the left and right.
Sandeep Vaheesan, a policy counsel at the Open Markets Institute, says Amazon managed to evade scrutiny for so long because the public and policymakers were captivated by the benefits it provided to consumers.
"As consumers we could say that Amazon's extraordinarily convenient, most of its products are competitively priced," Vaheesan said in an interview with The Hill. "But a lot of the consumer benefits are coming at the expense of its suppliers and workers."
The biggest internet company in the world shook up the retail landscape when it came on the scene.
It's also no stranger to questions about its business model. Critics have long accused the company of forcing smaller businesses across the country to close. In March, Trump tweeted that Amazon had put "many thousands of retailers out of business."
Vaheesan, who has called for regulators to take antitrust action against the tech giant, said Sanders's criticism uniquely resonates with the public.
"He's showing that Amazon's success is built on paying thousands of its workers very poor wages," he said. "I think that forces people to think more broadly about the company."
Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, a paper Trump has repeatedly derided as "fake news," has been a popular target of conservatives. Some are now also picking up Sanders's attacks over the company's policies.
Fox News's Carlson has railed against Bezos and other CEOs for not paying their employees more.
"A huge number of Amazon workers are so poorly paid, they qualify for federal welfare benefits," Carlson told viewers in August. "Jeff Bezos is not paying his workers enough to eat, so you make up the difference on your tax dollars."
The criticisms have made Amazon a poster child for the debate.
Khanna said the attacks on the company aren't personal but are rather meant to highlight broader issues about inequality and how much power corporations have.
"No one is saying that Jeff Bezos is evil or a bad person. I buy Amazon products. We get them all the time to our house, and there's a lot that's innovative about his model," Khanna said in an interview with Hill.TV on Tuesday. "But what we're saying is we need to make sure that everyone is participating in the economic success."
Khanna said the focus should be on helping workers.
"Think about it from a worker's perspective. They're working hard. They choose the company that's the richest company in the world. They choose to work there, and they still can't make ends meet," he added.
"Something is wrong with that picture."