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Amazon’s Labor Sins Should Keep it From Contracts, Sanders Says

May 5, 2022, 6:46 PM

Democrats are looking at ways to ensure that companies they say violate labor laws, such as Amazon.com Inc., don’t receive federal contracting dollars, resurrecting an Obama-era policy that was blocked during the Trump administration.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), long known for his support of workers and unions, told reporters after a Senate Budget Committee hearing Thursday that they’re “working on a number of directions to get this done.”

The question of how to bar labor and employment law violators from holding federal contracts dates back at least to the Obama administration’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order, which Congress scrapped in 2017. Opponents dubbed the mandate—which required businesses bidding on federal contracts worth $500,000 or more to disclose labor and employment law violations, among other workplace information—the contractor “blacklisting” order.

A National Labor Relations Board judge last month found that Amazon illegally fired a worker who tried to improve the company’s Covid-19 safety protocols.

But the Biden administration and Congress must tread carefully if they aim to bring back a similar “blacklisting” policy. The Obama order was blocked by Republican lawmakers using the Congressional Review Act, which bars any “substantially” similar policies.

“There’s always a way around it if you’re strong and determined to do it,” Sanders said. “What we have to do is have the Biden administration be as aggressive as they can.”

Sanders asked President Joe Biden in an April 26 letter to ensure that federal contracts don’t go to companies engaged in “illegal anti-union activities.”

Amazon in Crosshairs

Many of Sanders’ questions during Thursday’s hearing focused on what he called Amazon’s “widespread” and “illegal” anti-union activity.

Amazon is grappling with an increasing number of workplace culture complaints from across the U.S. Employees have lodged 51 complaints against the company so far this year, many of which came from Amazon locations in Staten Island, N.Y., and Bessemer, Ala., where workers are organizing unions. Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union who became widely known for his union efforts, made his public Capitol Hill debut testifying Thursday.

Smalls said federal contractors can break labor laws and get away with it, and that the process workers can use to hold companies accountable isn’t working.

“It’s not a left or a right thing, it’s not a Democrat or Republican thing—it’s a worker thing,” Smalls said.

A Bloomberg Government analysis of nonclassified contracts and announcements of classified work reveals direct and indirect government sales could exceed $3 billion annually as recent contracts take effect over the next two years. In the government’s current fiscal year alone, Amazon bagged $367 million worth of contracts spread across 93 vendors and 33 agencies, according to publicly disclosed data.

That analysis excludes Amazon’s multibillion-dollar classified contracts with the Pentagon and the intelligence community, the value of which aren’t recorded in publicly released contracting data. The calculation also excludes the office supplies and more that government agencies buy from Amazon’s web store.

Amazon didn’t respond to a request for comment on the hearing or Sanders’ allegations.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the committee’s ranking member, called the Thursday hearing “radical.”

“You’ve determined Amazon is a piece of crap company—that’s your political bias,” Graham said. “There’s a process to debar companies that engage in illegal behaviors.”

Sanders agreed with Graham that the topic of the hearing was radical.

“I make no apologies for that,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think the taxpayers of this country do not want their tax dollars going to companies that break the law and make it hard for workers to organize.”

—With assistance from Paul Murphy (Bloomberg Government) and Spencer Soper (Bloomberg News)

To contact the reporter on this story: Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com