Bernie Sanders traveled to Birmingham, Alabama on Friday to mobilize Amazon workers organizing what could be the first union in the retail giant’s history.
“He is prepared to stand up and say that all workers in this country deserve to have living wages, decent working conditions, decent benefits and to be treated with dignity, not like a robot,” said the Vermont senator.
Approximately 5,800 workers at the company’s sorting facility in Bessemer, Alabama, are participating in a high-stakes vote to determine their membership in the Retail, Wholesale, and Large Stores Union. Voting ends March 29.
“What you are doing requires an enormous amount of courage, and what you are doing is not just for you, your children and your families, what you are doing is for workers across the country,” Sanders said.
A potential union at the nation’s second-largest retailer, owned by one of the world’s richest men, could mark a turning point for the American workforce, which faces a widening wealth gap and lingering economic fallout. from the coronavirus pandemic despite the growing fortunes of Amazon and other companies. .
“They know that if you succeed here, it will spread across the country,” Sanders said. “If you get this here, workers across the country will say, ‘If these guys in Alabama could take on the richest guy in the world, we can too.’
Sanders has repeatedly criticized 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 America earlier this month. He declined.
“Why, when you have so much money, more money than can be spent in a million lives, why are you spending millions trying to defeat an effort among the workers here?” Mr. Sanders said, pointing to the historic prospect of unionizing within a company owned by one of the richest people in the world in a state with a strained history of organized labor and a long shadow of slavery and Jim Crow.
The Bessmer facility opened in early 2020, printing a $ 361 million investment (driven by more than $ 3 million in tax incentives) in the Deep South. Its workforce is 80 percent black.
Workers have sought better and safer working conditions, including provisions on payments for dangerous living conditions and an end to the company’s practice of almost constant surveillance of workers.
During a committee hearing on March 17, Amazon worker Jennifer Bates said Alabama facility management has pressured employees with “anti-union” messages in restrooms, in text messages to workers’ phones, and during individual posts about classification. facility floor.
“Despite all that, or maybe because of that, we continue to build support for the union,” he said. “It’s frustrating that all we want is to make Amazon a better place to work, but Amazon is acting like they are under attack.”
He said the union campaign wants to make Amazon “as good a company for workers as it is for shareholders.”
“I’m tired of yelling and no one is listening to me,” union organizer Mike Foster from Alabama said Friday. “I am tired of seeing poverty and only a certain group of people is constantly getting richer. That’s not the America I heard about. That’s not the dream I heard about. “
Amazon representatives have largely welcomed the company’s criticism, but have rejected the company’s characterizations of its working conditions.
Dave Clark, Amazon’s chief executive officer of global consumer operations, was mocked this week for calling Amazon the “Bernie Sanders of employers”: The company raised its minimum wage to $ 15 after increasing pressure from Sanders and the labor organizers.
Amazon has also rejected complaints that workers urinated in bottles to meet workplace demands; Leaked documents released this week have refuted those claims.
The union campaign has drawn a growing network of high-profile support from labor and political advocates who have gotten into the historic campaign: Rapper and activist Killer Mike joined Sanders on Friday, a congressional delegation visited workers earlier this month and President Joe Biden issued a video statement to “Alabama workers” declaring that “all workers should have a free and fair option to join a union.”
More than a dozen Democratic state legislators in Alabama also signed a letter supporting the efforts of labor unions.
“Unions provide workers with a powerful vehicle to protect themselves from dangerous working conditions, exploitation and unfair wages,” your letter says. “We support Amazon workers at Bessemer, fighting to create a better life for themselves and workers around the world. His courage is inspiring and his campaign is important – what happens in Alabama affects the entire nation. “