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On Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders announced that he would be flying out to Birmingham, Alabama to meet with workers at an Amazon warehouse. Employees at the trillion-dollar company are currently on the precipice of a historic vote that will determine whether or not they’ll unionize, despite Amazon’s repeated attempts to dissuade workers from doing so.
But then, Amazon’s corporate overlords responded to the Senator’s planned trip. Dave Clark, Amazon’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Operations, weighed in: “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace,” Clark wrote on Twitter. “If you want to hear about $15 an hour and health care, Senator Sanders will be speaking downtown. But if you would like to make at least $15 an hour and have good health care, Amazon is hiring.”
Unsurprisingly, Clark’s attempts to school the Senate’s resident champion for workers’ rights backfired. First, Sanders confirmed his plan to visit. “All I want to know is why the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, is spending millions trying to prevent workers from organizing a union so they can negotiate for better wages, benefits and working conditions,” he added. Clark then replied with an accusation that Vermont’s $11.75 minimum wage is lower than Amazon’s $15 an hour. But that argument doesn’t make sense for several reasons: Amazon implemented the minimum wage after pressure from supporters of the Stop BEZOS Act, a piece of legislation introduced by Sanders. Vermont also has a Republican governor, and because Sanders is not a state legislator, his home state’s minimum wage is not exactly under his jurisdiction. What Sanders can do is fight for a higher federal minimum wage, which he’s been doing. For ages.
The heated back-and-forth only continued to unfold when others got involved. Clark’s Twitter mentions were — and still are — a mess, with users sharing article after article about Amazon’s exploitative, disturbing working conditions. “Hey Dave Clark, remember that time you lied to millions of Americans about people dying of COVID at Amazon?” wrote one person. Fight for 15, a workers’ rights organization, shared another link to a Guardian story about warehouse workers dying (of reasons unrelated to COVID, prior to the pandemic) — employees have alleged that they’ve watched coworkers die of heart attacks, and by suicide, and then been instructed to get back to work as if nothing had happened. Several people even cited a Fortune article about Clark, which alleges that he was nicknamed the “Sniper” because he admitted to hiding “in the shadows” at Amazon’s warehouses in order to find slackers he could fire.
But what really took this Twitter war to new heights was responses claiming that workers are forced to pee in bottles and trash cans. These allegations have floated around for a while, with several workers and undercover employees in both the U.S. and the U.K. sharing that because there weren’t any nearby bathrooms, workers would pee wherever they could so as to not miss their “targets” and get fired. But according to a U.S. staffer who spoke with Business Insider in 2018, workers caught peeing in cans were fired anyway. “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles,” Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan wrote on Twitter.
A verified Amazon account responded to Pocan’s statement. “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” wrote @AmazonNews, adding that “if that were true,” nobody would work for Amazon. But New York Rep. Mondaire Jones put it best: “‘If that were true, nobody would work for us.’ Imagine if our economy made it that easy. That’s why we need unions.”
Amazon executives have been accused of working overtime to prevent employees from unionizing and even gone so far as to hire intelligence analysts to monitor “labor organizing threats.” Recently, the company was accused of deleting the profiles of hundreds of thousands of entry-level employees from an online staff directory, which some people viewed as an attempt to cut communication between workers. (An Amazon spokesperson denied that this change was related to unionization efforts.)
The decision of whether to form a union will be determined by a mail-in election. Workers began voting in February, and the National Labor Relations Board will start tallying results on March 30. Refinery29 has reached out to an Amazon representative for comment.
Sanders has been a longtime critic of Amazon’s labor conditions and surveillance practices. “The fact that Amazon has decided to heavily invest in systems to retaliate against freedom of expression about unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, and to refer to organizing efforts as threats against the company equal to those posed by hate groups and terrorism, is unacceptable,” Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and two other Senators wrote in a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos last October.
And on Thursday, he once again reiterated his support for warehouse workers: “In the case of Amazon, let’s be clear. You’re dealing with an enormously profitable corporation owned by the wealthiest guy in America, Jeff Bezos,” Sanders said in a video shared to Twitter. “They can afford to pay their workers living wages and provide decent health benefits.”
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