Senior Biden administration officials met with union organizers from Starbucksand Amazon after the online retailer was admonished for its labor practices at a Senate hearing.
President Joe Biden and other senior administration officials met with the organizers on Thursday to hear about their challenges in forming unions. The same day, the Senate Budget Committee considered a measure that would bar Amazon and other companies from federal contracts over their alleged labor practices. The attention from labor-friendly politicians in Washington, D.C., follows a wave of organizing at large companies that have resisted unions.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who chairs the Budget Committee, railed against Amazon during the hearing, accusing the online retail giant of engaging in a litany of illegal union-busting and labor practices. He said Amazon endangers its low-wage workers and should be excluded from billions in federal contracts.
The hearing came after 8,300 Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, voted in April to form the company’s first labor union, as organizers eyed other locations. At the center of the effort has been Chris Smalls, president of the nascent Amazon Labor Union, who described what he called the company’s aggressive efforts to quash unions.
Wearing a Yankees baseball hat and a jacket with the slogan “Eat the Rich,” Smalls said Amazon would bring workers into classrooms where they were inundated with what he called “anti-union propaganda.”
“They isolate workers every single day, question them, pretty much gaslighting them, acting like they are working to improve the conditions but they are really just polling to see who’s pro-union [and] who’s not,” he said. “They report that information back to management. They have captive audiences every single day.”
Newsweek reached out to Amazon for comment.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the committee is “taking a very dangerous turn” under Sanders’ leadership, accusing him of singling out a company because of his agenda to “socialize this country.”
“This is very dangerous,” said Graham. “You can have oversight hearings all you like, but you’ve determined Amazon is a piece-of-crap company. That’s your political bias. They’re subject to the laws of the United States, they shouldn’t be subject to this.”
Graham said there is already a process in place for workers to complain about illegal practices by companies. He pointed to how in his home state there have been multiple efforts to unionize aerospace company Boeing, but there hasn’t been enough support among workers.
Republican Senator Mike Braun said during the hearing that if a company has high turnover or accident rates, which Amazon has been accused of having, “the system, in the long run, will take care of itself.”
Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh met with Smalls and other organizers seeking unions at Starbucks, REI, Titmouse Productions and other companies.
Biden joined the meeting to thank the organizers for “the inspiration they offer to workers across the country who may want to organize, and their contributions to the worker organizing momentum that is growing across the country,” according to a White House readout of the meeting.
Faiz Shakir, co-founder of pro-union nonprofit More Perfect Union, called it a “landmark meeting” that sends a strong message from the Biden administration.
“If you are prepared to take on the biggest corporations in the world and demand basic dignity and respect on the job, then the United States government will back you up,” said Shakir.