Amazon Walks a Political Tightrope in Its Union Struggle

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WASHINGTON — Amazon is aligned with the Biden administration on a number of fronts.

It backs a $15-an-hour federal minimal wage. It has pledged to fulfill all of the targets of the Paris local weather settlement on decreasing emissions. It has met with the administration to debate tips on how to assist with the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

However a union drive at considered one of its warehouses in Alabama has the retailer doing a political balancing act: staying on the great facet of Washington’s Democratic leaders whereas squashing an organizing effort that President Biden has signaled his help for.

Amazon employees in Bessemer, Ala., have been voting for weeks on whether or not to kind a union. The voting ends Monday. Approval could be a primary for Amazon employees in the USA and will energize the labor motion throughout the nation.

Labor organizers have tapped into dissatisfaction with working situations within the warehouse, saying Amazon’s pursuit of effectivity and earnings makes the situations harsh for employees. The corporate counters that its beginning wage of $15 an hour exceeds what different employers within the space pay, and it has urged employees to vote in opposition to unionizing.

Labor leaders and liberal Democrats have seized on the union drive, saying it reveals how Amazon will not be as pleasant to employees as the corporate says it’s. A few of the firm’s critics are additionally utilizing its resistance to the union push to argue that Amazon shouldn’t be trusted on different points, like local weather change and the federal minimal wage.

Amazon has at all times fought in opposition to unionizing by its employees. However the vote in Alabama comes at a dangerous second for the corporate. Lawmakers and regulators — not rivals — are a few of its biggest threats, and it has spent important money and time attempting to maintain the federal government away from its enterprise.

Amazon’s enterprise practices are the topic of antitrust investigations on the Federal Commerce Fee and in a number of state lawyer common workplaces. Mr. Biden on Monday nominated Lina Khan, a authorized scholar who got here to prominence along with her critique of the corporate, for a seat on the F.T.C.

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“I think everyone is seeing through the P.R. at this point and focusing on both their economic and political power,” Sarah Miller, a critic of Amazon, stated concerning the firm. Ms. Miller, who runs the American Financial Liberties Undertaking, an antitrust assume tank, added, “I think the narrative is cooked now on their status as a monopoly, their status as an abusive employer and their status as one of the biggest spenders on lobbying in Washington, D.C.”

Drew Herdener, Amazon’s vp for worldwide communications, stated in an announcement that the corporate shared frequent floor with the Biden administration on local weather change, immigration reform, the minimal wage and pandemic coverage, and was “seeing really positive collaboration on those fronts” with the White Home.

“As it relates to progressive Democrats in general, we’ve been surprised by some of the negative things we’ve seen certain members say in the press and on social media,” he stated. “If there’s a progressive company in this country, it’s Amazon. Find me another large company paying two times the minimum wage, providing great health benefits from Day 1, 95 percent education reimbursement, safe working environment, and so on. We really think we are an example of what a U.S. company should be doing for its employees.”

Amazon spent $18.7 million on federal lobbying final yr, in contrast with $2.1 million a decade in the past, in line with the Middle for Responsive Politics. Its lobbyists press their employer’s case on quite a lot of points, like how drones are regulated and the legal guidelines that govern pharmacies.

Customers adore Amazon. In late 2019, a nationwide survey by The Verge, a expertise information website, discovered that 91 % had a positive view of the retail large. When professors at Georgetown and New York Universities requested People in 2018 which establishments that they had essentially the most confidence in, solely the army ranked increased than Amazon.

Nonetheless, when Jeff Bezos, the chief govt, testified earlier than Congress final yr, he confronted accusations that the corporate squeezes the small companies that use its on-line market. A liberal philanthropic group funded a community of activists to press Amazon on privateness, competitors and labor points. They’ve additionally attacked Mr. Bezos, the richest individual on this planet by some measures, for his private wealth.

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Amazon has made efforts to achieve out to the brand new administration. Dave Clark, who runs the corporate’s client enterprise, despatched a letter to the White Home in January providing to assist with the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine and met nearly with Jeff Zients, the White Home’s coronavirus coordinator, to debate the vaccine rollout.

In December, the corporate additionally employed the lobbyist Jeff Ricchetti, whose brother, Steve Ricchetti, is a longtime aide to Mr. Biden and now a counselor to the president. Within the last quarter of final yr, Amazon paid Jeff Ricchetti $60,000, in line with disclosure types he filed with the federal government.

The corporate’s high lobbying and communications govt, Jay Carney, was a communications director for Mr. Biden through the Obama administration. President Barack Obama later named Mr. Carney the White Home press secretary. He has deep relationships with Mr. Biden’s interior circle, and has performed in a storage band with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Beneath Mr. Carney’s management, Amazon has taken steps to fulfill its liberal critics. In 2018, Senator Bernie Sanders, unbiased of Vermont, attacked the corporate over its wages. Not lengthy after that, the corporate introduced that it could increase its minimal wage to $15 an hour and push federal policymakers to do the identical.

“We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do and decided we want to lead,” Mr. Bezos stated in an announcement on the time.

Amazon has promoted the $15-an-hour minimal in adverts in publications steadily used to achieve authorities officers, together with Politico and The New York Occasions. Its lobbyists have pushed for a federal legislation elevating the wage.

The union organizers in Bessemer have more and more attracted help from the White Home and high lawmakers in Congress. Labor leaders spent weeks pushing Mr. Biden’s workers to have him weigh in on the election on the warehouse.

Their lobbying paid off: In February, Mr. Biden appeared in a video that didn’t point out Amazon explicitly however was seen as a transparent signal of help to the union. Within the video, he stated there “should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats” from employers in coming union elections, together with in Alabama.

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“I didn’t speak with the president directly, but my understanding was that the second this hit the president’s briefing book, he was like, ‘I’m in,’” stated Sara Nelson, the president of the Affiliation of Flight Attendants.

The Senate majority chief, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California each help the unionization effort, as do many different Democrats in Congress.

“We’ve got to protect every worker’s right to form and join a union, and to bargain collectively for better pay, quality health care, a safer workplace and a secure retirement,” stated Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, the place Amazon has its predominant headquarters. “That absolutely includes the Amazon workers in Alabama, just like workers in Washington State and across our country.”

Amazon’s opposition to the union drive may scuttle among the good will it established amongst Democrats with its help for a better federal minimal wage, some liberals stated.

Mr. Sanders stated he appreciated Amazon’s assistance on the minimal wage. “On the other hand,” he stated, “to my mind, I find it hard to understand why Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and the wealthiest guy in the world, worth about $182 billion, is spending millions of dollars fighting a union organizing effort in Alabama, where his workers are trying to organize for better wages and better working conditions.”

However he stated he would finally method the corporate “issue by issue.”

Mr. Sanders will seem at a union occasion in Alabama with the rapper Killer Mike on Friday. Mr. Clark, the Amazon govt, responded to the information with derision on Wednesday night.

“I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace to our constituents,” he stated on Twitter.

It recalled the message Amazon had ready for a delegation of progressive lawmakers who met with union representatives in Alabama this month.

On the warehouse, employees held up a big banner with textual content in daring letters: “CONGRESS: PLEASE MATCH AMAZON’S $15/HOUR MINIMUM WAGE!”

Karen Weise contributed reporting.