Alabama Amazon worker testifies before Congress: “We’re not robots.”
Jennifer Bates works at the Bessemer, Ala., Amazon warehouse. She testified about working conditions before the U.S. Senate Budget Committee on March 17. | via RWDSU

WASHINGTON—At Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., more than 5,800 workers, many if not most of them Black, toil for 10 hours each a day in the middle of a pandemic, shifting goods to loading docks via elevators they can’t board themselves. Instead, workers, many middle-aged, must tramp, or limp, up and down four flights of stairs.

There are only two half-hour breaks in their daily slog, and that’s not enough time to trek to restrooms in a warehouse the size of 16 football fields to wash up to protect themselves against the coronavirus. Random security checks, allegedly to prevent theft, eat into that time.

There are computerized monitoring and fulfillment quotas. Step away too long from your position and you’re docked. Too much time off the clock and you’re disciplined or fired. There’s no chance to explain why you had to take extra time off, even just to limp to the restroom.

No wonder the Amazon workers are now fighting for and voting on whether to unionize.

Amazon worker Jennifer Bates brought those details, and more, to a March 17 Senate Budget Committee hearing on the growing chasm between the rich and the rest of us, a gap made even worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

Bates got a sympathetic hearing from Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., the panel chair and the Senate’s most-veteran crusader for worker rights, especially the right to organize, unionize, and confront their bosses. Panel Republicans ducked questioning her. Their witness, Scott Winship of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, denied there’s a problem at all.

Instead, GOPers asked—responding to a tax-the-rich bill Sanders announced—whether income taxes should increase on corporations and the rich. Other Democratic-called witnesses, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, answered yes.

The Amazon Bessemer warehouse workers are voting, by mail, on whether to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union/UFCW. Voting is underway now, with results to be announced March 29. Bates told lawmakers they’re subject to an Amazon anti-union campaign ranging from hour-long management harangues to anti-union posters plastered in the restrooms.

But if they win, it would be a remarkable breakthrough in two hostile environments: Anti-union Alabama and anti-union Amazon. Sanders invited Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to testify by Zoom at the committee hearing. He refused.

“Amazon brags it pays above the minimum wage, but what they don’t tell you is what it’s like to work there,” Bates testified. “By my third day on the job, I was hurting,” after her hiring last May. Her sister was there, too, but later quit.

“And they certainly don’t tell you that they can afford to do much better for their workers,” Bates said.

The workers felt there has to be a better way, as “We are not robots, designed to live to work,” Bates declared. They started talking union—and Amazon is coming down hard in an anti-union drive in response, even though it could easily afford to pay them living wages and offer better benefits.

That’s because the coronavirus pandemic has made Amazon, which has more than half a million workers nationwide, and Bezos even richer than they already were. The national shift, caused by pandemic-forced closures of brick-and-mortar retailers, has ballooned the warehouse and delivery firm’s business, hiring, and profits. It also took away the essential warehouse workers’ premium essential pay after only a few months, Bates noted.

Bezos didn’t make those billions for Amazon, Bates declared. “We, the workers, made the billions for Amazon—I often say, we are the billionaires—we just don’t get to spend it,” she commented.

Citing Amazon’s “disrespect and inequality,” Bates said: “It’s important to have a union so Amazon will talk to us and resolve these issues” of better pay, better working conditions, and job security.

Amazon, as bad as it is, is just a large symptom of the widespread capitalist disease of worker exploitation by corporate greed, other witnesses, including Reich and Sarah Anderson, a veteran income inequality expert at the Institute for Policy Studies, told senators.

The disease is worsened by the decline of private sector union density in the U.S., Reich told Sanders after a question. “Fifty years ago, one-third of private sector workers belonged to unions. It gave them bargaining power and political power. Today only 6.4% do,” he added. “At the level of the firm, there’s no voice.”

“And in national politics, there is almost no countervailing power” to capitalist corporate domination and greed, Reich said. Organized labor historically took on that task.

But now, there’s little countervailing power, and meanwhile, the rich and companies leverage their wealth to buy and control politics, through dark money and campaign contributions, he said. That way, they perpetuate and increase their control over the rest of us.

Reich again used a quote, from famed progressive Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, to illustrate the consequences: “We can have a great deal of money in the hands of a few, or we can have a democracy. We can’t have both.”

Anderson, director of IPS’s program on global inequality, said the gap between the rich and the rest of us has grown exponentially over the last 40 years, and even during the 2008 Great Recession and the current crash. CEO pay is supposed to be tied to performance, but it isn’t, she said.

Instead, it increasingly comes in forms of stock options and other rewards available only to bosses and Wall Street financiers—compensation taxed at lower capital gains rates, Reich pointed out. And the gap especially hits workers of color, Anderson added.

“Women and people of color make up a disproportionately large share of today’s low-wage workers and a distressingly tiny share of corporate leaders. For decades, study after study has shown skyrocketing CEO pay levels have nothing to do with improved performance.

“Instead these massive paychecks reflect a rigged system that channels corporate resources to the top of the corporate ladder while those on the lower rungs face the greatest risks. Sadly, these obscene disparities are continuing during the pandemic…. Many corporate boards are actually bending the rules to protect CEOs while average workers are suffering.

“And corporate executives didn’t cause the [coronavirus] pandemic, but they made things worse by outsourcing many jobs and turning the rest into part-time work. A pay system that encourages CEO short-termism and recklessness puts us all at risk,” she warned.

Sanders said, at the hearing’s start, that he’s proposing a bill that would impose “an income inequality tax on CEOs who make more than 50 times the pay of the average worker.” Increasing union power and density, through the PRO Act, is another key move to reduce the income gap, he said.

Sanders’s bill would apply to Bezos. The AFL-CIO’s Executive Pay Watch reports Bezos’s pay, including stock options, was 58 times that of the median Amazon worker. IPS’s Anderson backed the bill as one of seven moves to close the gap between the rich and the rest of us.

“Corporations that pay their top executives between 50 and 100 times more than their typical workers would face a 0.5 percentage point increase in their federal tax rate. The highest penalty would apply to companies that pay top executives over 500 times worker pay. They would be subject to a 5 percentage point increase in their tax rate. This proposal would create an incentive to both rein in executive pay and lift up worker wages—all while generating an estimated $150 billion in revenue over 10 years,” her detailed prepared statement says.

Download a People’s World flyer on the Amazon struggle – use it for distribution at solidarity events.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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