Christian Smalls, founder of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), speaks during a hearing at the Senate Budget Committee in Washington, DC, on Thursday, May 5, 2022. The hearing is titled “Should Taxpayer Dollars Go to Companies That Violate Labor Laws? “

Eric Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Chris Smalls, a former Amazon employee and leader of the upstart labor union, challenged lawmakers about the technology hippo’s seniority at a Senate hearing on Thursday.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders called the hearing part of his call for the White House to stop offering federal contracts to companies like Amazon that are accused of unfair work practices. Sanders called on Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezas, who was invited to the hearing but was not present, in his opening remarks for preventing unions from joining the company.

Smalls is president of the Amazon Labor Union, a grassroots organization headed by current and former employees of the company. Last month, Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island voted in favor of the company’s first union in the U.S., despite a high-level opposition campaign from Amazon. However, the ALU failed to repeat its success earlier this week when second-class workers on Staten Island abandoned the union.

Smalls said Amazon violates labor laws “with impunity” and, as a result, should be banned from obtaining government contracts.

“We cannot allow Amazon or any other employer to receive taxpayers ‘money if they engage in illegal conduct against unions and deny workers’ rights,” Smalls said in his testimony. “We cannot enter into federal contracts with these employers. We cannot allow them to receive taxpayer subsidies from our states and local governments. ”

Amazon officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Senate Budget Committee member Sen. Lindsay Graham, RSC, called the hearing “radical” and criticized Sanders for nominating Amazon.

“It’s an attempt to get the desired result by using the United States Senate as its tool,” Graham said. “It’s very dangerous. You can have a visual hearing as much as you want, but you’ve determined that Amazon is a shitty campaign. It’s your political bias.”

Smalls fired back at Graham, saying, “You seem to have talked about more companies and enterprises in your speech, but you’ve forgotten that people make these companies work and that we’re not protected.”

Graham later asked Smalls if he had filed a complaint against Amazon. Smalls was fired by Amazon in 2020 after the company said it had violated social distancing rules. Smalls claimed he was fired in retaliation for organizing a protest in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic with calls for tighter security. His dismissal sparked widespread outrage, including a complaint from New York Attorney General Leticia James trying to get Amazon to hire Smalls again.

Smalls said the process of prosecuting companies “doesn’t work,” and Graham responded that this was Smalls ’opinion.

“It’s a fact,” Smalls countered.

Teamsters President Sean O’Brien joined Smalls at the hearing, among other participants in the discussion. Last year, Teamsters announced a resumption of efforts to organize Amazon’s facilities and aimed to expand the company nationwide.

On Thursday, the White House is due to host Smalls and other organizers, including a group seeking to organize Starbucks workers, at a meeting to discuss “their extraordinary efforts to organize unions in their workplaces,” a White House spokesman told Reuters.

WATCH: The Amazon labor union wins – the president breaks future decisions

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