Bernie asks Jeff Bezos: You are worth $182 billion … why are you doing everything in your power to stop your workers from unionizing?

A Journal of People report

amazon union

At a hearing on March 17, 2021, Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke critically about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who declined Sanders’ invitation to testify, and Elon Musk, the two wealthiest men.

“Bezos and Musk now own more wealth than the bottom 40%. Meanwhile, we’re looking at more hunger in America than at any time in decades,” Sanders said in his opening remarks at the Senate Budget Committee hearing, which was titled The Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America.

“If he was with us this morning, I would ask him the following question … Mr. Bezos, you are worth $182 billion – that’s a B,” Sanders said. “One hundred eighty-two billion dollars, you’re the wealthiest person in the world. Why are you doing everything in your power to stop your workers in Bessemer, Alabama, from joining a union?”

The Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on the “Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America.” Bernie Sanders, the committee chairman, convened the hearing to focus attention on the unfolding battle in Bessemer, Alabama, where around 5,800 Amazon warehouse workers are currently voting on whether to unionize with the Retail, Warehouse, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). It follows closely on the heels of a similar hearing on workers’ wages.

The unionization push being voted on at Amazon’s Bessemer fulfillment center has been the focal point of a high-profile labor dispute between the behemoth “everything store” and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. Amazon has aggressively pushed its workers to vote against unionization, launching a campaign called “Do It Without Dues” to encourage workers to stick to the status quo.

Sanders pointed out the disparity between Bezos’ wealth growth during the pandemic and the struggles of rank-and-file workers.

“Jeff Bezos has become $77 billion richer during this horrific pandemic, while denying hundreds of thousands of workers who work at Amazon paid sick leave,” he said.

Sanders has been a vocal critic of Amazon, while President Joe Biden has taken a softer approach in referencing the union drive. In a statement earlier in March, Biden condemned “anti-union propaganda” from large companies but stopped short of naming Amazon.

Jennifer Bates, an employee at the Bessemer warehouse who testified at Wednesday’s hearing, said the unionization efforts were an attempt to “have a level playing field.” Bates cited tough working conditions, long hours, and a lack of job security as major drivers of the unionization efforts.

“Amazon brags it pays workers above the minimum wage,” she said. “What they don’t tell you is what those jobs are really like. And they certainly don’t tell you what they can afford.”

When asked what having a union would mean to her and her coworkers, Bates said it would result in their voices being “amplified” and a “sense of empowerment, “and not just at the Amazon in Bessemer but all over the country.”

“We take employee feedback seriously, including Ms. Bates’s, but we don’t believe her comments represent the more than 90% of her fulfillment center colleagues who say they’d recommend Amazon as a great place to work to friends and family,” an Amazon spokesperson told Insider. “We encourage people to speak with the hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees who love their jobs, earn at least $15 an hour, receive comprehensive healthcare and paid leave benefits, prefer direct dialogue with their managers, and voted Amazon #2 on the Forbes best employers list in 2020.”

While much of the hearing was devoted to the Amazon unionization fight, which will be decided at the end of March, Sanders said “Amazon and Jeff Bezos are not alone” and decried the “corporate greed” that drives income inequality.

Others who testified at the hearing included former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who said unions were important and cited the steep decline in union membership since the labor heyday of the mid-1900s.

Reich focused his remarks on how economic concentration translates into political power, pointing to the “platoons of Washington lobbyists” companies like Amazon now command. In response to a question from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on what “the new robber barons” like Bezos do with their money, Reich explained how the process unfolds.

“We see, for example, Amazon in Seattle has spent a great deal of money on city council elections. Amazon around the country is large enough that it can actually have an auction where it extorts locations” for data and subsidies, he said, referencing the company’s search for a second headquarters, a display of humiliating abjection on the part of elected officials notable even in a country where that is already the norm. Reich concluded his response by quoting former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s statement that “we can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

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