As about 5,800 workers in Alabama are voting whether to form the first union at an Amazon warehouse, Sanders told them: “From the bottom of my heart, I salute you.”
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) — He had pizza delivered to one of their rallies and he held a hearing on Capitol Hill discussing their efforts, but on Friday, Senator Bernie Sanders in the flesh traveled down to Birmingham, Alabama to express admiration directly to the workers of an Amazon plant seeking to form a union there.
Sanders told workers it required courage to take on one of the biggest companies in the world, which was founded by the richest man in the world: Jeff Bezos, who is worth about $182 billion. He added what the workers were attempting to do was historical.
“From the bottom of my heart, I salute you,” Sanders told the approximately 100 people gathered in the parking lot of the regional headquarters of the Retail Warehouse Department Store Union. He appeared with rapper Michael Render, aka Killer Mike.
The independent senator who caucuses with Democrats has long lectured on the wealth gap between rich and poor while on the campaign trail. The only fix, Sanders told the workers, was a resurgence in unions to demand better wages.
“If you pull this off here, Birmingham, Alabama, if you pull this off here, believe me workers all over this country are going to be saying ‘If these people in Alabama can take on the wealthiest guy in the world, we can do it as well’,” Sanders said.
The 5,800 workers at the Amazon plant in nearby Bessemer, Alabama are currently casting their ballots whether to unionize by mail. The tally of those votes will begin the morning of March 30.
If successful, the Bessemer plant will be the first U.S.-based Amazon warehouse to unionize.
Joshua Brewer, organizing director for RWDSU, said Sanders’ visit served as a way to inspire the Amazon workers who attended and served at a last-minute push to encourage workers to drop any straggling ballots into the mail.
Speaking to reporters after his eight-minute speech, Sanders said he was surprised a union drive like this originated in the right-to-work-state of Alabama but that it left him inspired.
Amazon did not return an emailed request for comment.
Two days before Sanders arrived in Birmingham, Amazon executive Dave Clark tweeted that while the senator talks about increasing wages, Amazon actually delivered with its $15-an-hour wage.
“I welcome (Sanders) to Birmingham and appreciate his push for a progressive workplace,” Clark wrote. “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.”
Sanders said he thinks the statement means Amazon is getting nervous.
“It’s not Bernie Sanders they’re worried about, it’s the power of workers coming together,” Sanders told reporters.
Darryl Richardson, the Amazon worker who originally messaged the RWDSU about the idea of forming a union, said the tipping point came when the company wrote him up for being off his station when he was waiting for the company to assign him one. He said he hopes the union would make his job more secure, adding that it’s easier said than done to find another job.
“I need a job secured,” Richardson said. “I need to be able to say I can retire. I’m too old to be walking in — it don’t look good.”
Workers have complained of a breakneck pace in the Bessemer plant with inadequate lunch and bathroom breaks and a management style that makes them feel disrespected.
As part of its work in the South, the RWDSU represents the workers of chicken plants. In 2008, it helped Somali refugees working at a Tyson plant in Tennessee receive a paid holiday for the Muslim holiday Eid-Al-Fitr and played a historical role during the Civil Rights era.
In his remarks, the rapper Render said the workers’ descriptions of working conditions remind him of the working conditions his grandmother experienced when she was a sharecropper in Alabama.
“Jeff Bezos is what they called in the old South the planter class,” Render said.
The Bessemer plant is not the only investment the Amazon founder made in the state. The aerospace firm Bezos founded, Blue Origins, broke ground on a facility to build rocket engines in Huntsville in 2019.
In February, Bezos announced he would step down as CEO of Amazon later this year, though still remaining chairman of its executive board.