Sanders calls on Biden to cut off federal contracts with Amazon

In an open letter, senator Bernie Sanders urges the US president to fulfil a campaign promise to stop union-busting companies from winning federal government contracts

US senator Bernie Sanders has written to president Joe Biden in the wake of the first successful unionisation effort of Amazon workers in the US, urging him to fulfil a campaign promise and prevent companies engaged in illegal anti-union activities from receiving federal contracts.

Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse – a major Amazon fulfilment centre in Staten Island, New York that employs more than 8,300 people – voted to unionise on 1 April 2022, forcing the e-commerce giant to formally recognise a trade union of its workers in the US for the first time.

Biden previously expressed support for unionisation on 6 April, during the North America’s Building Trades Unions conference, saying: “The choice to join a union belongs to workers alone. By the way, Amazon, here we come. Watch.”

Asked by reporters whether Biden was specifically endorsing the JFK8 unionisation effort, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “What he was conveying was his long-time support for collective bargaining, for the rights of workers to organise, and their decision to do exactly that in this case.”

During his presidential campaign, Biden also promised to “institute a multi-year federal debarment for all employers who illegally oppose unions,” as well as “ensure federal contracts only go to employers who sign neutrality agreements committing not to run anti-union campaigns”.

In an open letter dated 26 April, Sanders urged Biden to sign an executive order preventing companies that violate federal labour laws from winning contracts with the US federal government, saying: “At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, we need to build the trade union movement in America and allow more workers to engage in collective bargaining.”

Sanders added that, as one of the largest and most profitable US companies, Amazon is “the poster child” for why an anti-union-busting executive order is urgently needed. “According to filings with the US Department of Labor, Amazon spent over $4m on consultants last year alone in an effort to prevent its warehouses from unionising,” he said. “As part of their illegal anti-union activity, they forced workers to attend closed-door anti-union meetings and discriminated against pro-union workers.

“After workers in Staten Island, New York voted overwhelmingly to join the independent Amazon Labor Union, Amazon has not only refused to negotiate a first contract with them, but refuses to recognise that the union exists, even though the National Labor Relations Board certified their union victory.”

The senator and former presidential candidate further added that Amazon has been penalised by more than $75m for breaking federal discrimination and wage laws, is currently being sued by the National Labor Relations Board for illegal anti-union retaliation, and has 59 unfair labour practice cases currently open against it.

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“Amazon’s inadequate workplace safety policies also pose grave risks to workers,” said Sanders. “In some cases, their workplace injury rates are more than 2.5 times the industry average. Last December, six Amazon workers died after they were required to continue working during unsafe weather conditions in a warehouse that did not have appropriate safety facilities or policies.”

Computer Weekly contacted the White House about the letter, but received no response. However, an unnamed White House official told Politico that the president “has stated consistently and firmly that every worker in every state must have a free and fair choice to join a union and the right to bargain collectively with their employer”.

The official added that Biden takes the view that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, and no anti-union propaganda from employers while workers are making that vitally important choice about a union”.

Computer Weekly also contacted Amazon, but also received no response by the time of publication.

“We are grateful to Senator Sanders for his commitment to defending workers, and we agree with him that the time for talk is over,” said an Amazon Labor Union spokesperson. “Senator Sanders is only asking President Biden to keep his word and ensure that federal contracts don't go to anti-union companies like Amazon. He can literally do this with the stroke of a pen. History is watching, and there is no time to waste. We need to end union busting in America.”

In the UK, a June 2021 poll by union Unite showed that the British public is largely supportive of trade union recognition for Amazon workers, with a majority supporting measures that would block the e-commerce giant from securing public sector contracts until the company provides fairer work practices.

UK-based trade unions said in October 2020 that public sector buyers at both local and national government levels should use their direct relationships with Amazon to compel the e-commerce giant into improving work conditions.

“Both central and local government should be holding Amazon to account, ensuring its business model doesn’t hurt workers and communities,” wrote the Trades Union Congress and the GMB in their joint Challenging Amazon report. “But at present, instead of demanding that Amazon does better, government in the UK is failing to challenge its numerous damaging business practices, either because they lack the tools to do so or the willingness to act.”

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