Amazon Walks a Political Tightrope in Its Union Fight

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 objectives of the Paris local weather settlement on lowering emissions. It has met with the administration to debate the best way to assist with the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

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

Amazon staff in Bessemer, Ala., have been voting for weeks on whether or not to type a union. The voting ends Monday. Approval could be a first for Amazon staff in the United States and will energize the labor motion throughout the nation.

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

Labor leaders and liberal Democrats have seized on the union drive, saying it reveals how Amazon is just not as pleasant to staff as the corporate says it’s. Some of the corporate’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 all the time fought towards unionizing by its staff. But the vote in Alabama comes at a perilous second for the corporate. Lawmakers and regulators — not opponents — are a few of its biggest threats, and it has spent vital 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 Trade Commission and in a number of state legal professional basic 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.

“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, mentioned concerning the firm. Ms. Miller, who runs the American Economic Liberties Project, 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, mentioned in a assertion that the corporate shared widespread 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 House.

“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 mentioned. “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 12 months, in contrast with $2.1 million a decade in the past, in line with the Center for Responsive Politics. Its lobbyists press their employer’s case on a number of points, like how drones are regulated and the legal guidelines that govern pharmacies.

Consumers adore Amazon. In late 2019, a national survey by The Verge, a expertise information web site, discovered that 91 p.c had a favorable view of the retail large. When professors at Georgetown and New York Universities asked Americans in 2018 which establishments that they had probably the most confidence in, solely the navy ranked increased than Amazon.

Still, when Jeff Bezos, the chief govt, testified earlier than Congress final 12 months, 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 have additionally attacked Mr. Bezos, the richest individual in the world by some measures, for his private wealth.

Amazon has made efforts to achieve out to the brand new administration. Dave Clark, who runs the corporate’s shopper enterprise, despatched a letter to the White House in January providing to assist with the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine and met nearly with Jeff Zients, the White House’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. In the ultimate quarter of final 12 months, Amazon paid Jeff Ricchetti $60,000, in line with disclosure types he filed with the federal government.

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

Under Mr. Carney’s management, Amazon has taken steps to fulfill its liberal critics. In 2018, Senator Bernie Sanders, impartial of Vermont, attacked the corporate over its wages. Not lengthy after that, the corporate introduced that it will 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 mentioned in a assertion on the time.

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

The union organizers in Bessemer have more and more attracted assist from the White House 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 clear signal of assist to the union. In the video, he mentioned there “should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats” from employers in coming union elections, together with in Alabama.

“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,’” mentioned Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

The Senate majority chief, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California each assist 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,” mentioned Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, the place Amazon has its essential 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 might scuttle among the good will it established amongst Democrats with its assist for a increased federal minimal wage, some liberals mentioned.

Mr. Sanders mentioned he appreciated Amazon’s assistance on the minimal wage. “On the other hand,” he mentioned, “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.”

But he mentioned he would in the end 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 said on Twitter.

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

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

Karen Weise contributed reporting.

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