Amazon union battle comes to Washington

People hold signs supporting Amazon workers
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The unionization battle between workers at a Bessemer, Ala., plant and Amazon is set to take center stage during a Senate hearing on wealth inequality Wednesday.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos will notably be absent, even though one of the employees agitating for higher wages and less exhausting work quotas will be present for testimony.

“I’m sorry Mr. Bezos won’t join our hearing on income and wealth inequality,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Budget committee, which is hosting the hearing titled “the Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America.”

“As the wealthiest person on earth, I’d love to hear his reasoning as to why he is vigorously opposing a union organizing effort at Amazon which would improve wages and benefits for struggling workers,” said Sanders, who publicly invited Bezos to attend earlier this month.

An Amazon spokesperson told The Hill that Bezos is “unable to attend the hearing.” They did not immediately respond to follow-up questions about the reasons for his absence.

Bezos’s absence from Wednesday’s hearing comes as Amazon faces increasing scrutiny from Congress, both over its market power and concerns that it did not sufficiently protect its employees from the coronavirus pandemic. The CEO testified before Congress for the first time last summer after previously having relied on senior executives to be his presence in Washington.

Although the e-commerce giant’s founder is set to step away from his duties as CEO sometime during the third quarter, Bezos remains the face of the company.

A press release from Sanders’s office announcing Wednesday’s hearing highlighted that Bezos has seen his personal wealth swell during the coronavirus pandemic and criticized him for opposing the unionization drive, the most significant in Amazon’s facility.

Ballots went out to Amazon workers at the facility in early February and are due to be counted later this month.

The company has centered its public messaging around the $15 wage it has offered workers since 2018, aligning itself with Sanders’s push to raise the federal minimum wage to that amount.

But workers say that efforts to persuade them to vote “no” on unionizing have gone beyond just reminding them of benefits.

Jennifer Bates, the Amazon organizer testifying Wednesday, told The Hill earlier this month that managers have pulled workers into meetings, plastered bathrooms with flyers and sent anti-union employees around to work stations.

“It’s getting frustrating because it’s like an overkill,” she said. “Amazon is really acting like a … stalker ex.”

Amazon’s response to the election is likely to be criticized at Wednesday’s hearing, potentially even more so now that Bezos will not be present.

“We have known for a long time that Jeff Bezos has felt no responsibility towards his employees and even to the communities where he operates,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which would represent the warehouse in the event of a “yes” vote.

“His outrageous refusal to testify before the United States Congress demonstrates that Jeff Bezos does not even feel any responsibility to the American public for his actions,” Appelbaum continued.

The hearing will not be the first time that Washington’s attention has turned to the unionization vote in Bessemer.

President Biden released a video supporting the worker push without explicitly mentioning Amazon, and also included a warning against anti-union efforts.

A congressional delegation also visited and toured the facility earlier this month, boosting the profile of the election.

“We proudly stand with Alabama workers in Bessemer, Ala., because we know, we know, that standing up for the right of people to organize and collectively bargain is a God-given right for anyone who is working in America,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D), who represents Bessemer in Congress, said at a press conference during the visit.

Sanders has also been a vocal supporter of the workers pushing for unionization, at one point sending them pizza. 

Backing has also come from other unions — Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, is visiting the facility Wednesday — and celebrities like Danny Glover.

Support from these high profile figures has provided an “amplified sense of security” against anti-union tactics, Bates said.

Workers were “motivated” to vote after Biden’s show of support especially, she explained, adding that “we’re happy to have him on board.”

The Amazon workers also got support from an unexpected source in Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) last week, although his reasoning for backing appeared more tied to his dislike of the company’s decisions on social issues rather than its treatment of workers.

Rubio’s stance does suggest other Republicans who have opposed Amazon stopping selling books criticized as transphobic or barring hate groups from using its charity service may end up throwing support behind the unionization effort.

Wednesday’s hearing and the focus on Amazon will also provide an opportunity for Democrats to push the PRO Act, a federal bill aimed at offering protections for employees trying to unionize that passed through the House on a nearly party-line vote last week.

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) said after his tour of the facility earlier this month that the struggles to unionize in Bessemer “show us why we need to pass the PRO Act” to stop employers from “engaging in these suppression efforts like captive audience meetings.”

Bates will be joined Wednesday by former labor secretary Robert Reich, Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Scott Winship, director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tags Andy Levin Bernie Sanders Jeff Bezos Joe Biden Marco Rubio Terri Sewell

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