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Amazon employee testifies about 'grueling' working conditions amid union battle

Amazon.com Inc. employee Jennifer Bates testified March 17 at a Senate Budget Committee hearing about the "grueling" working conditions she experienced at the company's Bessemer, Ala., fulfillment center. She said her shifts were long, the pace was "super fast," and she got the impression that Amazon thinks "you are another machine."

"My work day feels like a nine-hour intense workout every day, and they track our every move," Bates said before the hearing titled "The Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America." "I learned that if I worked too slow or had too much time off task, I could be disciplined or even fired."

Bates' testimony was part of a hearing announced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Senate Budget Committee, to discuss soaring income inequality during a pandemic that has left millions of people unemployed or underemployed and living paycheck to paycheck. Other speakers included Robert Reich, Carmel P. Friesen Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley; and Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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Amazon employee Jennifer Bates described tough working conditions at the Bessemer, Ala., fulfillment center, where employees are voting on whether to form a union.
Source: Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

Bates' comments come as more than 5,800 workers who report to Amazon's center in Bessemer, Ala., vote on whether to form a union that would advocate for higher wages and better working conditions. If successfully formed, the Alabama workers group would become the first-ever union of Amazon warehouse employees in the U.S., a move that labor experts say could spark more organized labor initiatives among the e-commerce company's U.S. employees.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos declined an invitation to appear at the hearing.

An Amazon spokesperson said in an emailed statement to S&P Global Market Intelligence that the company endorses Sanders' efforts to "reduce income inequality with legislation to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers, like we did for ours in 2018."

In addition to testifying about working conditions, Bates also said Amazon is trying to convince workers in Alabama that they do not need a union.

"We were forced into what they call 'union education' meetings. We had no choice but to attend them, not given an opportunity to decline," Bates said. "They would last for as much as an hour, and we'd have to go sometimes several times a week."

If an Amazon employee spoke up and disagreed with what the company was saying, "they would just shut the meeting down," she said.

She said Amazon sent anti-union messages to workers' phones and had signs posted in bathroom stalls. "No place was off-limits," she said.

Despite this, Amazon workers continue to build support for the union, she said. "We do it because we hope with a union, we will finally have a level playing field," Bates said, adding that she wants Amazon workers to be able to talk to someone in human resources without being dismissed. She also wants more time to rest during the work day.

She said Amazon workers hope to get a living wage, "not just Amazon's minimum wage."

The National Labor Relations Board sent ballots in February to the Bessemer Amazon employees as part of an election conducted by mail. The ballots are due March 29, and if more than half of those who voted are in favor, the board would certify the new union.