Jeff Bezos has turned down a request from Bernie Sanders for the Amazon chief to appear at a Senate hearing on income inequality in the US, as Amazon workers in Alabama participate in a closely watched vote to determine whether they will join the first-ever labour union in the company’s history.
More than 5,800 workers at the company’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama are voting through March to decide their membership in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Amazon has sought to curb the union efforts by discouraging workers with a text message campaign, in-person meetings and an anti-union website.
The progressive senator from Vermont and chair of the Senate’s Finance Committee has called out Mr Bezos for his company’s objections to the union effort.
“Jeff, you’re worth $182 billion – that’s a lot of money,” the senator told MSNBC on 14 March. “What is your problem with allowing workers in Alabama to organize for better wages and better working conditions? You can afford to pay them more.”
Mr Sanders will chair a committee hearing on 17 March on “The Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America.” Witnesses will include Amazon worker Jennifer Bates from the company’s Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment centre.
Amazon, the nation’s second-largest retailer behind Walmart, does not have a labour union in the US. Workers at the Alabama facility would be the first to join.
The union drive has attracted a growing, high-profile support campaign, including a Democratic congressional delegation that travelled to the facility earlier this month.
President Joe Biden – who has vowed to by the “most pro-union president” – posted a video statement on social media supporting workers’ rights to form unions and warned against employee intimidation; he did not mention Amazon specifically but he mentioned “workers in Alabama” in a post on Twitter.
“It’s a vitally important choice – one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers,” he said. “Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.”
Amazon has come under fierce scrutiny from workers and watchdogs over warehouse working conditions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Mr Sanders joined senators Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown and Robert Menendez in a letter to Mr Bezos urging the company to protect workers during the public health crisis.
Following criticism from Mr Sanders in 2018, the company raised its starting hourly wage to $15.
The senator has pushed for raising the federally set hourly minimum wage – which has been set at $7.25 since 2009 – in a series of recent actions in the Senate. His proposal, which was rejected by all Senate Republicans and eight Democrats, would gradually raise the federal minimum by $2.25 through 2025.
“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 for ours in 2018,” an Amazon spokesperson said.
On MSNBC, the senator also called out the Walton family behind Walmart: “You’re the richest family in America. Why are you having a starting wage of $11 an hour, so your workers have to go on public assistance?”
Mr Sanders called wealth inequality – exacerbated by Covid-19 and its economic fallout – “a very dangerous issue” marked by persistently slow wage growth and a widened racial wealth gap while the nation’s highest earners grow their incomes four times faster than wages at the median income level.
“We cannot have a moral society or a strong economy when so few have so much and so many have so little,” he said.
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