Bernie Brings the Amazon Union Drive to Washington

At a Senate Budget Committee hearing yesterday, with Bernie Sanders presiding, economists, labor experts, and the day’s star witness — Jennifer Bates, an Amazon warehouse worker in Bessemer, Alabama — exposed the grim workings of an economy that continues to funnel wealth and power to a tiny capitalist elite.

Senator Bernie Sanders arrives to a Senate Budget Committee hearing on February 25, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Stefani Reynolds-Pool / Getty Images)

The Senate Budget Committee held a hearing yesterday 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.

Sanders was one of the first elected officials to publicly back the union drive, and yesterday’s hearing framed the campaign as the David vs. Goliath showdown that it is: Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, while one in four Bessemer residents live in poverty. If ever income and wealth inequality were on display, it’s in these Amazon workers’ attempt to unionize and Bezos’s refusal to let it happen. The Amazon CEO has poured money and resources into destroying the union effort, from hiring pricey anti-union consultants, to holding captive-audience meetings, to putting up anti-union flyers in the warehouse’s bathroom stalls.

“The simple truth is that today in America, the very, very rich are getting much richer, while tens of millions of working-class Americans are struggling to put food on the table and take care of their basic needs,” said Sanders in opening the hearing. He went on to note that while millions of people in the United States are in crisis during the pandemic, worrying not only about their health and safety but about whether they can pay rent, feed their families, and avoid total financial collapse, the country’s 660 billionaires have become $1.3 trillion richer (“that’s trillion with a ‘t,’” noted Sanders).

Bezos did not attend the hearing, having declined Sanders’s invitation. Sanders said that were Bezos present, he’d ask, “Why are you doing everything in your power to stop your workers in Bessemer, Alabama from joining a union?”

Unlike her boss, Jennifer Bates, who works at the Bessemer warehouse and is a vocal union supporter, attended the hearing, which took place as the mail-in voting period for the union campaign nears an end — ballots are due back by March 29.

“Amazon brags that it pays workers above the minimum wage. What they don’t tell you is what those jobs are really like,” said Bates. “The shifts are long, the pace is super-fast, you are constantly being monitored,” she explained, adding that the company treats its employees like “machines.” At the Bessemer warehouse, Amazon has a sign demanding Congress raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is what the company set as its own starting wage shortly after Sanders focused attention on the company’s wages in 2018. That this wage remains below the prevailing industry level in many of the places where it operates warehouses, and has been shown to lower wages at nearby warehouses, is rarely discussed — and certainly not by the company itself.

But there’s another sign outside the warehouse, Bates explained. It says, “If you see something, say something,’ so we decided to say something.”

The union talk began during a break, she explained. “People were upset about the breaks being too short and not having enough time to rest, about being humiliated to have to go through security check.”

Former secretary of labor Robert Reich also testified on the panel — he was one of several experts, alongside the Economic Innovation Group’s John Lettieri, the American Enterprise Institute’s Scott Winship, and the Institute for Policy Studies’s Sarah Anderson. Reich noted that the median wage in the United States has “barely budged” for forty years when adjusted for inflation, while the ratio of CEO-to-worker compensation is now over 300 to 1, and added that the $1.3 trillion gained by the country’s billionaires means that they could give each American a $3,900 check and still be as wealthy as they’d been prior to the pandemic.

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.”

Asked why she believes a union would benefit her and her coworkers, Bates said that it would provide a level playing field, a sense of respect and empowerment, a route to a living wage, and a means of holding Amazon accountable.

“It would allow us to feel more comfortable coming to work,” she concluded. “It would allow us to come to work and not have to worry about getting fired for something that you had no idea you had done.”

“Fifty years ago, one-third of private-sector workers belonged to unions,” said Reich in a response to Sanders’s question as to why the average General Motors (GM) worker made $45 an hour when adjusted for inflation, while the average Walmart worker makes under $15 an hour. Today, private-sector unionization sits at 6.4 percent. “It’s not that the GM worker was so much more brilliant or productive than the Walmart worker,” said Reich. “The difference is the GM worker had a union behind him.”

During her testimony, after explaining how workers can be disciplined or fired for spending too much “time off task,” for reasons such as going to the bathroom — no small time commitment in the 855,000-square-foot facility — Bates reiterated her case for unionizing.

“We are not robots designed to only live to work. We work to live. We deserve to live, laugh, and love, and have a full, healthy life,” she said. “We the workers make billions for Amazon. I often say ‘We’re the billionaires, but we just don’t get to spend any of it.’”