Bernie Sanders, chair of the Senate Budget Committee, highlighted the unionization effort at an Alabama Amazon plant while announcing a bill targeting high CEO pay.
(CN) — Jennifer Bates began working at the Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, in May 2020. She said she quickly found that while the company touted its $15-an-hour wage, the job was grueling, “so impersonal and at times just plain weird.”
Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee Wednesday via videoconferencing software, Bates described conditions in the plant sitting to the southwest of Birmingham that led workers there to push to unionize: two, 30-minute breaks during 10-hour shifts; constant monitoring; elevators in the four-story plant only used for merchandise; the company only communicating to workers via text or an app.
“By my third day, I was hurting,” Bates said. “I looked around and saw it wasn’t just me. I mentioned it to my sister, who also worked there at the time, and she just told me ‘it only gets worse.’”
One day on break, Bates said a few of the plant’s 5,800 workers began talking about organizing. The workers’ effort represents, some say, a key moment in the modern labor movement because if successful, it would be the first time a plant belonging to Amazon – one of America’s largest tech companies – would be unionized.
Like other left-wing politicians in recent weeks, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent who caucuses with Democrats, has seized upon the union drive.
Sanders has long made income inequality the focus of the stump speeches on his unsuccessful presidential campaigns, earning him a cult following in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Now, weeks into chairing the committee, he has steered its work to focus on the subject at a time when he says billionaires’ wealth has only increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The wealth of Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, and the union drive at his company’s Alabama plant became Sanders’ prime example of wealth disparity at the hearing.
On Friday, Sanders said he invited Bezos to testify at the hearing, noting in a press release that his company launched an “aggressive union-busting campaign against Amazon workers” who sought to organize at the Alabama plant.
An Amazon spokesperson said in an email Bezos was unable to testify.
“We fully endorse Senator Sanders’s efforts to reduce income inequality with legislation to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers, like we did for ours in 2018,” Amazon’s spokesperson said.
But Sanders wanted to talk about Bezos’ wealth, saying the pandemic left the Amazon founder $77 billion richer while the company told its workers it would not provide hazard pay and sick leave.
“Mr. Bezos, you are worth $182 billion dollars … you’re the wealthiest person in the world,” Sanders said he would have asked Bezos if he appeared. “Why are you doing everything in your power to stop your workers in Bessemer, Alabama, from joining a union so that they can negotiate for better wages, better benefits and better working conditions?”
During the hearing, Sanders announced he introduced a bill that would levy additional taxes on corporations if they paid their CEOs 50 times more than the median worker.
Robert Reich, former labor secretary for the Clinton administration, testified that never in the time following World War II has the income between Americans been this unequal, where about half live paycheck to paycheck.
He attributed this gap to the decline in unions. Today, just 6.4% of private-sector workers belong to a union, Reich said, while about half a century ago that number was about 32%.
“If you look at the rise of unions in terms of percentage of Americans in the private sector were unionized, and then the decline of unions, you see that the peak years of unionization were from 1940 to 1978 and those were exactly the years when we had the greatest degree of equality in this country in terms of income and wealth spread,” Reich said.
Ranking member Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, wondered if large tech companies have become modern-day robber barons.
“The question for me is have we let too much power consolidate in the hands of big tech? Is it a virtual monopoly in terms of flow of information?” he said.
Graham added he believes many Americans, rather than look for ways to take wealth from others, seek opportunities to get ahead. He posited programs like enterprise opportunity zones could be a tool to increase business opportunities through tax advantages.
Last Friday, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida wrote an op-ed published in USA Today saying he supported the unionization effort happening in Bessemer, while adding he generally disagreed with adversarial relationships between unions and management.
Conservatives, Rubio said, have traditionally been suspicious of the power wielded by unions. But in this case, the senator said workers have been treated as cogs in a global company that “waged a war against working-class values” when it prevented “traditional charities” from utilizing its fundraising program AmazonSmile and stopped offering conservative books for sale.
“If Amazon thinks that conservatives will automatically rally to do its bidding after proving itself to be such enthusiastic culture warriors, it is sorely mistaken,” Rubio wrote.
During her testimony, Bates said Amazon began discouraging the union drive by holding mandatory union education meetings – sometimes seven times a week – in addition to sending messages on the workers’ phones and posting signs in the bathroom stalls.
“We’re committed to make sure the customers get a nice package, the whole product in a couple of days. But who is looking out for us? We the workers made the billions for Amazon,” Bates said.
The workers’ votes on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union are scheduled to be counted March 30.