May 28, 2023

WASHINGTON – Amazon is connected to the Biden administration on several fronts.

It supports a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour. It is committed to achieving all of the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce emissions. It has met with the administration to discuss how to help distribute Covid-19 vaccines.

However, during a union action in one of its Alabama warehouses, the retailer is performing a political balancing act: staying on the good side of Washington’s democratic leaders while suppressing the organizational efforts for which President Biden has signaled his support.

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala., Have been voting for weeks on whether to form a union. The vote ends on Monday. The approval would be a first for Amazon workers in the United States and could stimulate labor movement across the country.

The work organizers have tapped dissatisfaction with working conditions in the warehouse, stating that Amazon’s pursuit of efficiency and profit is making conditions harsh for workers. The company counters that its starting wage of $ 15 an hour is higher than what other employers in the area pay and has urged workers to vote against union formation.

Union leaders and Liberal Democrats have picked up on the union movement, saying it shows that Amazon is not as worker-friendly as the company claims it is. Some of the company’s critics also use its opposition to the union push to argue that Amazon shouldn’t be trusted on other issues like climate change and the federal minimum wage.

Amazon has always fought against union formation among its workers. But the Alabama vote comes at a dangerous time for the company. Lawmakers and regulators – not competitors – are some of the biggest threats and they have spent a lot of time and money keeping the government out of its business.

Amazon’s business practices are the subject of antitrust investigations by the Federal Trade Commission and several attorneys general. Mr Biden nominated Lina Khan, a law scholar best known for her criticism of the company, for a seat on the FTC on Monday

“I think everyone is going through the PR by this point and focusing on both their economic and political power,” said Sarah Miller, an Amazon critic, of the company. Ms. Miller, who heads the American Economic Liberties Project, an antitrust think tank, added, “I think the narrative is now based on her status as a monopoly, her status as an abusive employer, and her status as one of the largest lobbies in Washington, DC “

Drew Herdener, vice president of global communications at Amazon, said in a statement that the company has a common ground with the Biden government on climate change, immigration reform, minimum wages and pandemic policies, and sees “a really positive collaboration on those fronts” the white House.

“With regard to progressive Democrats in general, we were surprised by some negative things certain members said in the press and on social media,” he said. “If there’s a progressive company in this country, it’s Amazon. Find me at another big company that pays twice the minimum wage and offers great health benefits, 95 percent reimbursement for education, a safe work environment, etc. from day 1. We really believe that we are an example of what a US company should do for its employees. “

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Amazon spent $ 18.7 million on federal lobbying last year, compared to $ 2.1 million a decade ago. The lobbyists are pushing their employer’s case on a wide variety of issues, such as the regulation of drones and the laws governing pharmacies.

Consumers love Amazon. In late 2019, a national survey by The Verge, a technology news site, found 91 percent gave the retail giant a positive rating. When professors at Georgetown and New York Universities asked Americans which institutions they trusted most in 2018, only the military ranked higher than Amazon.

When Jeff Bezos, the executive director, testified before Congress last year, he was accused of pressuring the small businesses that use its online marketplace. A liberal philanthropic organization funded a network of activists to push Amazon on privacy, competition and work issues. They also attacked Mr. Bezos, the richest person in the world, for his personal wealth.

Amazon has made efforts to achieve the new administration. Dave Clark, who runs the company’s consumer business, sent a letter to the White House in January offering to help distribute the coronavirus vaccine and virtually met with Jeff Zients, the White House’s coronavirus coordinator to discuss the introduction of the vaccine.

In December, the company also hired lobbyist Jeff Ricchetti, whose brother Steve Ricchetti has been a longtime advisor to Mr Biden and is now an advisor to the President. In the final quarter of last year, Amazon paid Jeff Ricchetti $ 60,000. This is evident from disclosure forms he filed with the government.

Jay Carney, the company’s top lobbying and communications manager, was Mr Biden’s communications director during the Obama administration. President Barack Obama later named Mr. Carney as White House press secretary. He has deep ties with Mr. Biden’s inner circle and has played in a garage band with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Under the leadership of Mr. Carney, Amazon has taken steps to please its liberal critics. In 2018, regardless of Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders attacked the company over its wages. Not long after, the company announced it would raise its minimum wage to $ 15 an hour and urge federal policymakers to do the same.

“We listened to our critics, thought about what we wanted to do and decided that we want to lead,” Bezos said in a statement at the time.

Amazon has advertised the $ 15 an hour minimum for ads in publications that are commonly used to reach government officials, including Politico and The New York Times. Your lobbyists have pushed for a federal law that increases wages.

Union organizers in Bessemer have received increasing support from the White House and leading lawmakers in Congress. For weeks union leaders have urged Mr Biden’s staff to weigh the choices in the warehouse.

Their lobbying has paid off: in February, Mr Biden appeared on a video that did not specifically mention Amazon, but which was seen as a clear sign of support for the union. In the video, he said there should be “no intimidation, no coercion, no threats” from employers in the upcoming union elections, including in Alabama.

“I haven’t spoken to the President directly, but I understand that the moment the President’s briefing book appeared, he said, ‘I’ll be there,” said Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants .

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer of New York and spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi of California support the union effort, as do many other Democrats in Congress.

“We must protect the right of every worker to unionize and join a union and to negotiate together for better pay, quality health care, a safer job and a safe retirement,” said Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, where Amazon is headquartered. “That absolutely includes the Amazon workers in Alabama, as well as the workers in Washington State and our country.”

Amazon’s opposition to the union movement could undo some of the goodwill it instigated among Democrats in support for a higher federal minimum wage, some liberals said.

Mr Sanders said he appreciated Amazon’s help with the minimum wage. “On the other hand,” he said, “I have a hard time understanding why Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and the richest man in the world, worth about $ 182 billion, is spending millions of dollars fighting a union.” Organize efforts in Alabama, where its workers are trying to organize for better wages and better working conditions. “

But he said he would ultimately turn to the company “problem by problem”.

Mr. Sanders will be performing with rapper Killer Mike at a union event in Alabama on Friday. Mr Clark, the Amazon manager, mockingly replied to the news on Wednesday night.

“I often say we’re the Bernie Sanders’ employers, but that’s not entirely true because we actually offer our constituents a progressive job,” he said on Twitter.

It was a reminder of the message Amazon had been waiting for a delegation of progressive lawmakers to meet with union officials in Alabama this month.

In the warehouse, workers held up a large banner with bold text: “CONGRESS: PLEASE ADJUST AMAZON’S MINIMUM WAGE OF $ 15 / HOUR!”

Karen Weise contributed to the coverage.