“You’re prepared to stand up and say that every worker in this country deserves to have decent wages, decent working conditions, decent benefits, and to be treated with dignity, not as a robot,” the Vermont senator said.
Roughly 5,800 workers at the company’s sorting facility in Bessemer, Alabama are participating in a high-stakes vote to determine their membership with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Voting ends on 29 March.
“What you are doing requires an enormous amount of courage, and what you’re doing is not only for yourselves and your kids and your families – what you are doing is for workers all across this country,” Mr Sanders said.
A potential union in the nation’s second-largest retailer, owned by one the world’s wealthiest men, could mark a turning point for US labour, facing a widening wealth gap and lingering economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic despite the growing fortunes of Amazon and other companies.
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“They know if you succeed here it will spread all over the country,” Mr Sanders said. “If you pull this off here, workers all over this country will be saying, ‘If these guys in Alabama could take on the wealthiest guy in the world, we can do it as well’.”
Mr Sanders has repeatedly criticised Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for his company’s opposition to the union effort.
The senator invited him to testify at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on the state of income inequality in the US earlier this month. He declined.
“Why – when you have so much money, more money than can be spent in a million lifetimes – why are you spending millions trying to defeat an effort among the workers here?” said Mr Sanders, noting the historic prospect of unionising within a company owned by one of the world’s wealthiest people in a state with a fraught history of organised labour and a long shadow of slavery and Jim Crow.
The facility in Bessmer opened in early 2020, imprinting a $361 million investment (buoyed by more than $3 million in tax incentives) into the Deep South. Its workforce is 80 per cent Black.
Workers have sought better and safer working conditions, including hazard pay provisions and an end to the company’s practice of near-constant worker surveillance.
During a committee hearing on 17 March, Amazon worker Jennifer Bates said management at Alabama facility has pressured employees with “anti-union” messages in bathroom stalls, in text messages to workers’ phones, and during one-on-one messages on the sorting facility floor.
“Despite all that, or maybe because of it, we continued to build support for the union,” she said. “It’s frustrating that all we want is to make Amazon a better place to work, but Amazon is acting like they’re under attack.”
She said the union drive wants to make Amazon “as good a company for workers as it is for shareholders”.
“I’m tired of crying out and no one’s listening to me,” union organiser Mike Foster said from Alabama on Friday. “I’m tired of seeing poverty and only a certain group of people are steady getting richer. That’s not the America that I heard about. That’s not the dream that I heard about.”
Amazon representatives have largely welcomed company criticism but rejected characterisations of the company about its working conditions.
Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer Operations, was widely mocked this week for declaring Amazon the “Bernie Sanders of employers” – the company raised its minimum wage to $15 after increasing pressure from Mr Sanders and labour organisers.
Amazon has also rejected complaints that workers urinated in bottles to meet workplace demands – leaked documents published this week have refuted those claims.
The union drive has attracted a growing network of high-profile support from both labour advocates and politicians who have waded into the landmark campaign – rapper and activist Killer Mike joined Mr Sanders on Friday, a congressional delegation visited workers earlier this month, and President Joe Biden released a video statement to “workers in Alabama” declaring that “every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union”.
More than a dozen Democratic state lawmakers in Alabama have also signed a letter supporting workers’ union efforts.
“Unions give workers a powerful vehicle to protect themselves from dangerous working conditions, exploitation, and unfair pay,” their letter reads. “We stand with the Amazon workers in Bessemer, fighting to create a better life for themselves and workers everywhere. Your courage is inspiring, and your campaign is important: What happens in Alabama affects the entire nation.”
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