If he found himself sitting across from Jeff Bezos, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) knows exactly what he would tell the second-richest man in the world.
“There’s nothing that I would say to him except, ‘You know what? We’re gonna take you on,’” Sanders said in a phone interview last week. “You could either start responding to the needs of your workers, or we’re gonna fight you ruthlessly.”
It’s not necessarily a new sentiment for Sanders, who has built a 40-plus-year political career, including upstart campaigns in the last two Democratic presidential primaries, on the power of labor unions and, as he puts it, “standing up to corporate greed.” But now the moment has changed, with unionization efforts making headlines in industries from media to retail. The unionization of an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island—a first for the company that Bezos founded, which has harshly fought previous efforts and has vowed to challenge this one—represents a watershed.
Sanders spoke to Vanity Fair before attending union rallies in New York and Virginia, where he delivered speeches and met with workers.
Now, he says, as Biden’s sweeping legislative agenda—which Sanders attempted to shepherd through the Senate—looks interminably stalled, and Democrats search for a winning electoral message in the upcoming midterms, it is time for the party to embrace what he has long been arguing for and make backing unions a core part of their pitch to voters. They must decide, Sanders said, whether to “become a party which stands for the working class of this country” or to “remain a corporately controlled party beholden to [their] wealthy campaign contributors and to the corporate media as well.”
“To turn your back on the working class, in general, is political suicide,” Sanders argued, later adding, “It is good politics to become strongly involved in the labor movement [and] support workers in their organizing efforts…I think it’s the right thing to do from a policy position. It is also very, very good politics. And I think if the Democrats don’t do that immediately, they are going to look at a very, very bad 2022.”
Democrats do acknowledge this political reality, to an extent. In the 2020 presidential primary, most of the Democratic candidates had visited a picket line to show their support. Union organizing is why Democrats win in states like Nevada. So why, Sanders is asking, do Democrats stop there?
On the campaign trail in 2020, Sanders provided a hint of what the labor landscape would look like if he were to win White House, vowing to “double union membership in [his] first term.” That hasn’t quite happened since Biden took office at the start of last year; however, there have been signs the labor movement could be rebounding after decades of stagnation and decline.
The National Labor Relations Board has reported that, during the period from October 2021 to March of this year, petitions for union representation were up 57% from the prior period, reaching the highest level in 10 years. Yet despite the recent high-profile successes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the percentage of workers represented by a union had dropped by 0.5 percentage points between 2020 and 2021.
Sanders urged Biden to do more. “To his credit, Biden has talked more about unions than any other president in my lifetime,” said Sanders at the rally outside the Amazon facility in Staten Island on Sunday. “But talk is not enough. What he has got to do is start inviting these guys to the White House…unions that are organizing all over this country. And make it clear that he is on their side, and that he is going to do what he can to support labor organizing throughout this country.”
In his conversation with V.F., Sanders also trained his ire on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the pair of relatively conservative Democratic senators who have been a main obstacle to much of Biden’s agenda.
“What happened is you had people like [Manchin and Sinema] who sabotaged our efforts, what we were trying to do,” Sanders said, referring to Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which the pair refused to support. “Ever since then, the Democratic Party has stumbled and fallen further and further behind,” he said. “How you handle Manchin, how you handle Sinema and the other conservative Democrats is one of the challenges that the Democrats have got to deal with. But the current strategy is an absolute political failure.” (Spokespeople for Manchin and Sinema did not respond to requests for comment.)
While top White House officials and Democratic leaders in Congress attempt to resurrect the doomed negotiations with Manchin and Sinema, Sanders is focusing his efforts on making the labor movement’s recent momentum last. He said his team has maintained “a nucleus of the campaign,” roughly 10 staffers, who are heavily focused on supporting labor efforts, connecting with workers at a variety of the flash points of unionization, including at companies like John Deere and Kellogg’s and universities across the country where poorly paid adjunct faculty are organizing.
“I think we should move to a system where, if 50% of the workers in a bargaining unit plus one vote to form a union, they have a union. End of discussion,” Sanders said. “And then you have to have the strong legislation that prevents companies from stalling out negotiating a first contract, which is a very serious problem.”
While he is clearly proud of his own efforts, Sanders credited the workers at various companies for driving the movement.
“The energy for all of the labor activity that we are seeing now—and there is a lot of it—is coming from the grassroots, not from the labor establishment,” Sanders said, noting that the Starbucks union is independent and the Amazon union is “completely locally grown.”
Amid the recent unionization movement, no labor effort has reached the prominence of the Amazon drive at the company’s three huge buildings on Staten Island, each christened by Amazon with an impersonal alphanumeric code. A small group of novice organizers employed at JFK8, the fulfillment center, spun a wildcat walkout into a full-bore unionization campaign that ultimately won support from the majority of the workers in the building who voted. This week is their first bid for expansion; they are seeking to organize LDJ5, the sorting facility across the road.
Sanders met privately with Amazon workers before speaking at their rally on Sunday. Activists and members of other unions showed up to that event, which also featured the man who has become the face of the Amazon union push, Chris Smalls, a fired worker who was part of the original walkout. At the rally on Sunday, Smalls had a message for national Democrats.
“They have to pass the PRO [Protecting the Right to Organize] Act,” Smalls told V.F. before taking the stage. “If they’re not going to pass the PRO Act, Biden needs to sign an executive order. Simple as that.”
Amazon employees at the event, many of whom declined to be named due to concerns of retaliation, levied a slew of allegations against the company including inadequate COVID protocols, retaliation against union organizers, and improper care for workplace injuries. Activists hung a photo bearing portraits of the six workers who died last December after a tornado hit an Amazon warehouse in Illinois, amplifying concerns about the company’s workplace-safety protocols.
Jordan Flowers, who participated in the original walkout with Smalls, offered a grim description of daily life at JFK8. “It’s slavery. You get out here at seven in the morning, six in the morning. You slave until 11, until your first little 15-minute break and then your lunch. It’s a nonstop facility. This is open 24 hours,” Flowers said.
Asked about the allegations from union activists, Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, insisted the company’s management was dedicated to creating a positive environment for staff. “Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work,” Nantel said in a written statement.
Of course, Sanders sees the company far less positively. Speaking to Vanity Fair, he dubbed Amazon’s billionaire founder “a manifestation of the oligarchy.”
“This is a guy who’s worth, I think, $180 billion, a guy who, in a given year, pays nothing in taxes. A guy who, in a given year, has Amazon paying nothing in taxes and who has spent millions trying to make it impossible for his workers to join unions,” Sanders said, adding, “He gets richer and richer. He’s very excited, you know, about going off into space.”
After reciting this (only slightly embellished) summary of Bezos’s and Amazon’s outlandish wealth and tax avoidance, Sanders reached the grand finale on his litany of outrages.
“He owns these mansions and yachts. He has a $500 million dollar yacht,” Sanders said. “And yet he’s resisting the ability of his workers to earn decent wages and live and work under decent working conditions.”