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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Wednesday escalated support among top Democrats for a historic union drive at an Amazon (AMZN) warehouse in Alabama, inviting a worker at the facility to speak at a hearing on inequality.
"Working at an Amazon warehouse is no easy thing," says Jennifer Bates, who has worked at the facility since last May and supports the union drive. "Shifts are long, the pace is super fast, you're constantly being watched and monitored. They seem to think you're another machine."
At the hearing before the Senate's powerful budget committee, Democrats asserted that large corporations have exacerbated wealth inequality and distorted markets. The hearing, “The Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America," comes after President Joe Biden released a video defending the right of workers to unionize and made reference to "workers in Alabama," widely perceived as an allusion to the labor battle at the tech giant.
Amazon has aggressively opposed the union drive, hiring the same law firm — Morgan Lewis — that it did when it fought a union drive at a Delaware warehouse in 2014. Plus, the company created a website that warns of onerous dues payments and the negative impact of a union on day-to-day operations.
Sanders, who chairs the budget committee, said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos declined an invitation to testify. Even so, Sanders addressed a question to him in absence.
"You are the wealthiest person in the world," Sanders says. "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?"
'We decided to stand up and say something'
During the hearing, Bates, the Amazon worker, described work at the Amazon warehouse, highlighted demands that include safety protections and the reinstatement of hazard pay, and criticized the company's efforts to dissuade workers from supporting the union.
"For so long people have been walking away from jobs for disrespect and inequality," she adds. "Nobody has been standing up and saying it's time to hold people accountable. We decided to stand up and say something."
In a statement to Yahoo Finance last month, Amazon defended its opposition to union organizing among employees in Alabama.
“The fact is that Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees: industry-leading pay, comprehensive benefits from the first day on the job, opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment,” Amazon Spokesperson Maria Boschetti said.
The novel coronavirus has fueled record e-commerce revenue for Amazon as hundreds of millions of Americans have been forced into their homes, prompting the hiring of hundreds of thousands of workers and plans to expand its warehouse network.
But it has also elicited a new set of grievances around health risks and inadequate compensation tied to the pandemic. By last October, 19,816 employees had tested positive or been presumed positive for COVID-19, Amazon said that month.
Soon after the outset of the pandemic, in March of 2020, workers at a Staten Island warehouse held an initial protest over coronavirus exposure fears. In the ensuing months, the demonstrations grew to hundreds of workers spread across 50 warehouses nationwide.
The worker organizing has culminated in the union vote now underway at a facility in Bessemer, Alabama, where 85% of the workers are Black, according to a union estimate. The mail-in union vote will conclude on March 29.
Amazon is abiding by all NLRB rules and guidelines as it relates to union campaigns, and believes it is important for all employees to understand all sides of the union election, the company told Yahoo Finance last month.
'A moral and economic issue'
The union election in Alabama would mark a major victory for the labor movement, which has struggled to organize workers in the fast-growing tech sector amid decades of attrition in the unionization rate across the private sector.
The workers will likely enjoy improved prospects under President Joe Biden, who vowed on the campaign trail to be “the most pro-union president” in recent history and nominated a former union leader, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, for Labor Secretary. Plus, the union drive at Amazon has garnered public support from several liberal members of the U.S. Senate as well as Republican Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Along with other progressive members of Congress, Sanders introduced on Wednesday a bill that would increase taxes on companies that pay their top executives at least 50 times more than the pay of a median worker. If the law had been in effect last year, Walmart (WMT) would have paid up to more than $850 million in additional taxes, according to a statement released by Sanders. McDonald’s (MCD) would have paid up to nearly $70 million in additional taxes.
"We need to make the wealthiest people and most profitable corporations in America begin to pay their fair share of taxes," Sanders says. "Here is the bottom line: The issue of income and wealth inequality is in fact a moral and economic issue."
During Wednesday's hearing, ranking Republican member Lindsey Graham and other Republicans also criticized the risks posed by corporate monopolies but some questioned the need to dramatically intervene to regulate the economy.
"Most of us don't want the consolidation of wealth and power to lie in the hands of the few through ill-gotten gain [and] monopolies," Graham says. "But if you can make your money fairly, good for you."
Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.