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Amazon warehouse worker tells Senate: 'They seem to think you are another machine'

Jennifer Bates explains why she and co-workers are trying to form a union at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama.

Amazon warehouse shipping fulfillment center
Amazon warehouse worker Jennifer Bates testified alongside scholars on income inequality and the role of unions in addressing the problem.
James Martin/CNET

Working at an Amazon warehouse is like a "nine-hour intense workout every day," Jennifer Bates told members of the Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday. Bates is working to form a union with her co-workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. During 10-hour shifts with two 30-minute breaks, she works on her feet, frequently climbing four flights of stairs because workers aren't allowed to use the elevators. 

"They seem to think you are another machine," Bates said, adding that her co-workers want better job security, adequate breaks and a wage that matches the cost of living.

Also testifying were former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich; Sarah Anderson, global economic policy director at the Institute for Policy Studies; Scott Winship, director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute; and John Lettieri, president and CEO of the Economic Innovation Group.

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Jeff Bezos was also invited to testify at the hearing but declined the invitation. "We take employee feedback seriously, including Ms. Bates's, but we don't believe her comments represent the more than 90% of her fulfillment center colleagues who say they'd recommend Amazon as a great place to work to friends and family," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. "We encourage people to speak with the hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees who love their jobs, earn at least $15 an hour, receive comprehensive healthcare and paid leave benefits, prefer direct dialogue with their managers, and voted Amazon #2 on the Forbes best employers list in 2020."

About 5,800 of Bates' Bessemer co-workers are currently voting on the union with mail-in ballots. The National Labor Relations Board will start tallying the votes on March 30.

The hearing Wednesday was called by committee chair Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont who's long focused on income and wealth inequality. Democrats and Republicans at the hearing disagreed on the severity of the gap between richest and poorest earners in the US. 

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Jennifer Bates testifying at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on income inequality. A union would "open the door" to a living wage, better job security and adequate breaks for Amazon warehouse workers, Bates said.

CNET

Sanders and witnesses Reich and Anderson focused on the increasing gap in earnings between CEOs and their employees earning a median wage. Sanders said he was set to introduce legislation that would tax companies with CEOs making more than 50 times the pay of a median-earning employee. However, Republicans and witness Winship argued that taxation already significantly limits income inequality. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said he believes both parties can agree that major tech companies should be investigated for breaking the rules to amass monopoly power, echoing previous calls to regulate Big Tech.

Sanders also focused on the decline of unions in the US. Bates told Senators she believes joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union will "open the door" to improvements in the quality of life for workers in Bessemer. 

"We the workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and deserve to be given the same commitment that we give to the job every day we go in," she said.