Sen. Bernie Sanders has a new target in his crusade against the “billionaire class” and his name is Jeff Bezos.
The Amazon CEO is the prime target of a bill the Vermont Senator introduced Wednesday, the Stop Bad Employers Zeroing Out Subsidies Act. Yes, the Stop BEZOS Act. The bill would penalize large companies if their workers are also relying on government benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.
“What we are looking at is a moment in American history with unbelievable and obscene levels of income and wealth inequality. It happens to be that Bezos is at the top of that list now as the wealthiest person in the world,” Sen. Sanders said, in an interview with VICE News Tuesday. “But to be clear, don't see this as some kind of Sanders personal vendetta against Bezos. It's not.”
The median U.S. salary for full-time Amazon employees is $34,123, according to the company, with those who work in Amazon’s vast, low-skill fulfillment centers earning much less than programmers based in Seattle. On Tuesday, Amazon become the second company in history to reach a valuation of $1 trillion, and its CEO recently became the richest man on the planet, with an estimated fortune of over $150 billion.
And so Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post and private space firm Blue Origin, has become the subject of an increasingly ferocious campaign by Sanders in recent months painting the e-commerce mogul as a 21st century robber baron who hoards his wealth while nickel-and-diming his own employees, some of whom rely on government assistance.
“What we are looking at is a moment in American history with unbelievable and obscene levels of income and wealth inequality”
The introduction of the bill Wednesday—paired with a House bill introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna of California— ratchets up that campaign. And while it's unlikely to pass in the near future, it could be a preview of a message he'd bring to a 2020 presidential bid.
“I understand that [Bezos] is sitting around thinking about how we could spend all of his money and he's talking and thinking about space travel, but I think he could play a profound role right here on planet Earth,” Sanders said.
“I would say when you look at the rigged economy, you are looking at Jeff Bezos as a prime example of that,” he added.
Beyond incorporating Bezos into his fiery campaign speeches, Sanders had his Senate office produce what are essentially video attack ads against the Amazon CEO (one with 4.4 million Facebook views is called “Faces of Greed: Jeff Bezos”), collected over 100,000 signatures on a “petition to Jeff Bezos,” trolled Bezos on Twitter, and solicited personal stories from current and former Amazon workers who said they'd experienced poor treatment or compensation.
And that may only be the beginning.
Sanders told VICE News he was worried that the world’s richest man also owns one of the world’s most influential papers.
“Whether it is Bezos owning The Washington Post or Sheldon Adelson owning the paper in Nevada or billionaires owning the major networks or Rupert Murdoch owning a significant part of the major media all over the world, billionaire and corporate ownership of media is a huge issue unto itself,” Sanders said. While Sanders preferred to talk about the legislation introduced on Wednesday, he said that billionaire media ownership is “an issue of great concern to me. ”
And Sanders appears to have struck a nerve. While Amazon and Bezos have remained mostly silent in response to frequent Twitter attacks from President Trump, Sanders’ recent missives have rattled the company in a way that Trump’s have not.
“Senator Sanders continues to make inaccurate and misleading accusations against Amazon,” the company wrote in a blog post last week in anticipation of Sanders’ bill. The company went on to accuse Sanders of playing politics and its Director of Global Operations, Dave Clark, encouraged Amazon employees to respond to Sanders’ solicitation for employee experiences in an email to operations leaders.
Sanders’ office provided VICE News with several of the approximately 500 positive responses. Some are more persuasive than others.
“I will be starting at Amazon as an entry-level software engineer with a total salary of $145000,” wrote Burhan Hamid, whose LinkedIn page lists multiple recent internships at Amazon which he said paid him close to $8,000 per month with free housing. “What other company will give a fresh college grad this kind of money? I iterate again: Amazon is not an easy place to work at. However, if you put in the work and work hard, you will be handsomely rewarded.”
Amazon declined to add anything on the record beyond its blog post.
Amazon has seemingly anticipated that political winds could turn on them, increasing its lobbying spending by more than 400 percent over the past five years. The tech giant has so far avoided the regulatory scrutiny that has affected companies like Google and Facebook and managed to pay zero dollars in federal taxes last year.
That's partly because the company has had bipartisan appeal. At the Internet Association’s annual charity gala in May of 2017 shortly after Trump's inauguration, Bezos—then the second-richest man in the world—was toasted by both parties as the keynote interview. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan discussed his favorite Amazon Prime show in a pre-taped interview and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said he celebrated Jeff Bezos “and what he’s done with Amazon.”
But there are other cracks forming in Amazon’s bipartisan armor. Besides Trump, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson weighed in last week to attack Bezos and praise Sanders.
“There is nothing conservative about most big corporations,” Carlson said in a monologue. There’s nothing free about this market, a lot of these companies operate as monopolies.”
Carlson went on to attack Amazon for having a compensation system that had some of its workers also rely on government programs for the poor.
“There is one person in Washington who is offended by this arrangement, and we’re sorry to say he’s pretty much wrong on everything else,” Carlson said. “Bernie Sanders, of all people, is trying to get your money back from Jeff Bezos.”
Cover: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a news conference regarding the separation of immigrant children at the U.S. Capitol on July 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images)