Bernie Sanders at U.S. Senate hearing rips Amazon over union opposition

Some call for union-opposing employers to be blocked from federal contracts

By: - May 5, 2022 5:04 pm

Amazon employees hold a protest and walkout over conditions at the company’s Staten Island distribution facility on March 30, 2020, in New York City. Workers at many facilities across the country have protested conditions, as employees have tested positive for the coronavirus. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders took Amazon to task Thursday at a congressional hearing, bashing the online giant’s leadership for fighting union drives and questioning whether the federal government should continue contracting with the multibillion-dollar company. 

Amazon executives didn’t attend the hearing but U.S. senators did hear from labor unions and the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

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Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, used the panel’s broad jurisdiction to highlight Amazon’s high turnover rate in its warehouses located throughout the country, National Labor Relations Board rulings against the company for anti-union activities and “inadequate” workplace safety policies. 

“I think the taxpayers in this country want to know that when their tax dollars are going to contracts with companies, that those companies obey the law,” Sanders said. “I don’t think that’s asking terribly much.”  

Sanders, an independent who ran in the Democratic presidential primary in 2016 and again in 2020, called on President Joe Biden to fulfill a promise he made while campaigning “to institute a multiyear federal debarment for all employers who illegally oppose unions” and to “ensure federal contracts only go to employers who sign neutrality agreements committing not to run anti-union campaigns.”

Sanders said he believed Biden to be sincere when making those pledges, adding that “the time for talk is over, the time for action is now.”

Graham sees ‘dangerous turn’

South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham vehemently disagreed with Sanders’ characterizations of Amazon, saying that while the company is subject to federal laws, it shouldn’t have to be subjected to the hearing. 

“This committee is taking a very dangerous turn under your leadership, to be honest with you,” said Graham, the top Republican on the committee. “You’re singling out a single company because of your political agenda to socialize this country.”

Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, which won a vote in Staten Island, New York, last month, criticized Graham for what he viewed as being more on the side of the employer than employees. 

The corporations have the control … they break the law, they get away with it.

– Christian Smalls, president of Amazon Labor Union

“It sounds like you were talking about more of the companies and the businesses in your speech, but you forgot that the people are the ones who make these companies operate,” Smalls said. “Yet we’re not protected and the process for when we hold these companies accountable is not working for us. And that’s the reason why we’re here today.”

Smalls argued that union protections and employee safety shouldn’t be a Democratic or a Republican issue, but an issue that affects workers throughout the country. 

He also rebuked Amazon for working against union organizers and for not meeting union representatives for the Staten Island warehouse at the bargaining table after employees voted to form a union.  

“The corporations have the control … they break the law, they get away with it,” Smalls said. 

Smalls met with Biden later in the day, tweeting “he said I got him in trouble,” before an emoji and “gooooooooooood.”

The meeting wasn’t on Biden’s public schedule. But Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh were slated to hold a meeting at the White House Thursday afternoon with “grassroots worker organizers to discuss their extraordinary efforts to organize unions in their workplaces,” according to Harris’ schedule. 

Workers at a second Amazon warehouse in Staten Island rejected the union in a vote earlier this week.

Service Contract Act violators

Thomas Costa, director of the Education, Workforce and Income Security branch of the Government Accountability Office, testified later in the hearing that 622 contractors with Service Contract Act violations were still able to get contracts with the federal government worth $35 billion. 

That act addresses federal contractors with wage violations, or misclassifying someone in a lower position, and those that deny people so-called fringe benefits like paid leave or vacation time. 

During the five-year period from fiscal 2014-2019, the U.S. Department of Labor looked at 5,000 cases and found violations of the federal law in 68 percent of those cases. Employers in 94 percent of those cases complied with the law and paid back $204 million in back wages. A total of 60 were debarred, meaning they couldn’t get federal contracts for three years. 

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine took an approach somewhere in between his two colleagues’ positions, noting that officials and residents in the Northern Virginia suburbs just outside of Washington, D.C., are excited for Amazon to bring 35,000 jobs to the region with its new headquarters. 

Not all of Amazon’s 1 million employees hate their jobs, said Kaine, a Democrat.

But, he added that management and executives should exemplify the approach to working with unions that Kaine’s father had when he managed a union ironworkers shop.

“He just taught us growing up, unions and management shouldn’t be fighting, it should be a team,” Kaine said, adding he hopes managers and employees will aim “to be a team without owners kicking workers around and without employers being demonized.”

Kaine admonished management for how long it typically takes after employees vote to form a union for there to be a contract, noting most unions cannot get a contract in the first three years “because the employer just stonewalls.”

Democrats have legislation, known as the Pro Act, that would overhaul how the unionization process works, though the bill doesn’t have the necessary Republican support to get past the Senate’s legislative filibuster. 

Sean O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, told committee members that non-union companies tend to have a “significant competitive advantage” in securing federal contracts compared to companies with unions.

He testified that Amazon workers should have the chance to choose the type of union protections that other companies, like UPS, have.

“Amazon needs to be held accountable,” O’Brien said. “And how you hold them accountable is taking back some of these contracts until they are a responsible employer.”

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

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