Bernie Sanders Strikes at Amazon With New Tax Bill



An unusual public spat between

Amazon.com
Inc.


AMZN -1.50%

and Sen. Bernie Sanders over workers’ wages escalated Wednesday as the Vermont independent introduced a bill aimed at taxing big companies whose employees rely on federal benefits to make ends meet.

Mr. Sanders specifically targeted Amazon founder and leader Jeff Bezos, contrasting his vast personal wealth with the compensation of the companies’ lowest-paid workers.

The senator, speaking at a press conference introducing the bill, noted Mr. Bezos “could play a profound role” in altering the national discourse regarding pay by guaranteeing no Amazon worker receives less than a living wage, or enough to cover rent, food and other basic necessities.

“This would not only improve lives for thousands of people at Amazon; it would send a message to every corporation in America that that’s where we should be going as a nation,” Mr. Sanders said.

The legislation is aimed at ending what Mr. Sanders has said is middle-class taxpayers’ subsidization of large, profitable companies owned by billionaires. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna (D., Calif.), would tax companies with 500 or more employees an amount equal to federal benefits received by their low-wage workers, effectively forcing them to pay more one way or another.

While Mr. Sanders said the legislation is “not just about Amazon,” he only called out the Seattle retail giant in announcing the bill—the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act—which he shortened in a press release to the BEZOS Act.

Amazon declined to comment on the legislation, but posted new commentary on its corporate blog from three happy Amazon workers who contacted Sen. Sanders.

“For hundreds of thousands of associates, Amazon provides competitive pay, health insurance, disability insurance, retirement savings plans, company stock, and flexible schedules for new parents, along with opportunities to learn skills and further develop their careers,” the company wrote in the post.

The senator for months has railed against Amazon’s market power and working conditions in speeches and on social media, holding the company up as the epitome of wealth inequality in the U.S. and saying it underpays its workers relative to its fortunes. As if on cue, Amazon’s market value Tuesday briefly topped $1 trillion for the first time, making it only the second U.S. company along with

Apple
Inc.

to do so.

Amazon typically doesn’t respond to politician’s barbs, including those from President Trump, who has repeatedly criticized Amazon over its business practices and economic impact. But the company hasn’t remained silent with Mr. Sanders.

Amazon last Wednesday spoke out against what is said were Mr. Sanders’ “inaccurate and misleading accusations.” The company disputed the senator’s claim Amazon doesn’t pay its lower-level employees a fair wage, saying full-time warehouse workers are paid $15 an hour on average when stock and bonuses are included.

Amazon’s rare rebuke came as Mr. Sanders asked current and former Amazon employees to share their experiences in an online form. The website asked workers if they have used “public assistance, such as food stamps, Medicaid or subsidized housing, in order to make ends meet” or if they struggled with “the demanding working conditions at Amazon.”

Amazon, in last week’s response, encouraged employees to take Mr. Sanders up on his request, saying it hoped “he is also interested in positive” experiences. Dave Clark, Amazon’s head of global operations, sent an email to warehouse leaders encouraging them and their staff to tell Mr. Sanders “your truth.”

Mr. Sanders’s attacks against Amazon are part of a broader political backlash against tech giants as they gain greater sway over the U.S. economy and extend their impact on society.

Facebook
Inc.

operating chief Sheryl Sandberg and

Twitter
Inc.

Chief Executive Jack Dorseyappeared Wednesday on Capitol Hill to face questions about political content on their platforms, antitrust concerns and consumer privacy.

The sheer size of Amazon, which has moved beyond retail into everything from cloud computing to movie production, has put a target on it for politicians across the spectrum. Mr. Bezos has become the world’s wealthiest person with a net worth of more than $166 billion, according to indexes that track individual wealth.

Since being elected president, Mr. Trump has lashed out at Amazon repeatedly over taxes, its use of the U.S. Postal Service and its effect on other retailers. He also called the Washington Post, which Mr. Bezos owns personally, a lobbying arm. His remarks in speeches and on Twitter stem in part from Mr. Trump’s growing unhappiness with coverage of his administration by the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal has reported.

Unlike some big companies, Amazon has preferred to give Mr. Trump the silent treatment. Mr. Bezos has decided to play the long game, people familiar with his thinking have said, letting others publicly rebut the president. In March, for instance, Amazon stayed quiet as the former Postmaster General said delivering packages for companies like Amazon had been a boon to the Postal Service.

Write to Jay Greene at Jay.Greene@wsj.com



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