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Sanders brings Amazon union battle to D.C., calling warehouse worker to testify at income inequality hearing

Jeff Bezos declined to testify at the Senate Budget Committee hearing called by the Vermont independent and frequent Amazon critic.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is holding a Senate Budget hearing on Wednesday that will focus on income inequality. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will bring the high-stakes labor battle against Amazon to Washington on Wednesday, when a union-supporting worker will testify before the Senate Budget Committee.

The hearing, which will focus on income inequality, will include testimony from Jennifer Bates, who trains employees at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. That’s the facility where 5,805 employees are in the middle of an election to decide whether they will be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

Sanders also invited Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest person, to testify at the hearing, but Mike Casca, a spokesman for the senator, said Amazon declined the offer Friday. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“What you are seeing right now in Bessemer is an example of the richest person in this country spending a whole lot of money to make it harder for ordinary working people to live with dignity and safety,” Sanders said in an interview with The Post.

Amazon has been trying to thwart unionization, even as Bezos saw his fortune climb $58 billion to $176.6 billion during the pandemic. It represents the growing chasm in income inequality that Sanders hopes the hearing will address.

“Bezos has become a symbol of the unfettered capitalism that we are living under right now, when the very, very rich are doing phenomenally well while ordinary working people are struggling to put food on the table,” Sanders said.

Amazon fights aggressively to defeat union drive in Alabama, fearing a coming wave

The battle at the Bessemer warehouse, which opened last spring, has emerged as one of the largest, and most closely watched, labor fights among private U.S. employers in recent history. The RWDSU filed in November a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold the Amazon unionization vote and won the right to hold a seven-week mail-in election that ends March 29.

Pro-union workers at the facility have expressed concern about the pressure to meet aggressive quotas to stow, pick and pack goods. Some workers also want Amazon to resume the $2-an-hour bonus it instituted at the start of the pandemic but eliminated at the end of May as infection rates across the country began to stabilize.

“We fully endorse Senator Sanders’ efforts to reduce income inequality with legislation to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers, like we did in 2018,” Amazon spokeswoman Jodi Seth said via email.

The company has said it offers Bessemer workers generous benefits, as well as a starting pay of $15.30 an hour, well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. (Alabama has no state minimum-wage law.) The company has claimed the union doesn’t represent the views of a majority of its employees.

Late last month, the unionization effort got an enormous boost from President Biden, who tweeted a video saying workers should be able to make their decision in the election without pressure from the company. While Biden didn’t name Amazon in the video, he made it clear that he supports the union drive.

Biden hails Amazon workers pressing to unionize in Alabama in unusual sign of support

“Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama, and all across America, are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace,” Biden said. “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.”

Amazon has been aggressively trying to shut down the organizing drive, peppering workers with several texts a day discouraging unionization. It has offered to pay unhappy workers who have been with the company for a year to leave. It has even posted fliers on the door inside a bathroom stall urging them to vote no to the union.

The committee hearing, which begins at 11 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, will focus on “The Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America.” Other witnesses include former labor secretary Robert Reich; Scott Winship, director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute; and Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Amazon’s anti-union blitz stalks Alabama warehouse workers everywhere, even the bathroom

Sanders, who has been a frequent Amazon critic, wants to put a spotlight on income inequality in the United States. Coming at a time when many other Americans are struggling, Bezos’s massive windfall over the past year makes him “the poster child,” Sanders said.

At the start of the pandemic, Sanders joined with three Democrat senators — Cory Booker (N.J.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Robert Menendez (N.J.) — to send Bezos a letter expressing concern that the company isn’t doing enough to protect its warehouse workers from the coronavirus outbreak.

Sanders has frequently denounced the company for paying subsistence wages to its warehouse staff. After that criticism, Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2018, though it caught heat for taking away some bonuses and stock grants for warehouse workers.

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Sanders also criticized Amazon’s use of the federal tax code, saying during a 2019 presidential debate that 500,000 Americans “are sleeping out on the street and yet companies like Amazon that made billions in profits did not pay one nickel in federal income tax.”

Sanders has supported the Bessemer drive, sending pizza to workers at a rally last month. He believes the battle is a pivotal one for labor.

“If they can win, I think that will send a message to workers all over this country that if you are prepared to stand up and fight, you can win a union, you can win better wages and better working conditions,” Sanders said.