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Biden meets with labor organizer at Amazon after Senate hearing

By David Shepardson and Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden met on Thursday with a labor leader organizing Amazon.com Inc workers and with other worker organizers hours after U.S. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders slammed the online retailer at a hearing on the company's labor practices.

Christian Smalls, who heads the Amazon Labor Union, said on Twitter he had met with Biden shortly after Smalls harshly criticized Amazon (AMZN) at the Senate hearing. A White House official confirmed the meeting to Reuters.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden dropped by to offer his support but that he and the White House are not directly engaging in Amazon's (AMZN) labor disputes.

"We don't engage or get involved directly in individual labor disputes," she said.

Workers at an Amazon (AMZN) warehouse in New York City recently voted to form the first union at the second-largest U.S. private employer and join the Amazon Labor Union under the leadership of Smalls, a former worker who has argued for higher pay and job security.

Last month, Biden drew loud applause at a labor event when he turned a spotlight on Amazon (AMZN).

After highlighting a government task force on worker organization he launched a year ago "to make sure the choice to join a union belongs to workers alone," Biden called out Amazon (AMZN) at the April 6 event.

"And by the way, by the way, Amazon (AMZN) here we come. Watch. Watch," Biden said.

Sanders said at Thursday's hearing that "Amazon (AMZN) has done everything possible - legal and illegal - to defeat union organizing efforts."

But the company won bipartisan support at the hearing, including from Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, a state with a large Amazon (AMZN) presence.

"I don't think Amazon (AMZN) is an organized criminal syndicate," Kaine said, adding he backs efforts to make it easier for workers to unionize. "Amazon (AMZN) employs a million Americans - not everybody hates their jobs at Amazon (AMZN)."

Sanders addressed Amazon (AMZN) Chairman Jeff Bezos, who had been invited to testify but did not appear.

"Given all your wealth, how much do you need? Why are you doing everything in your power, including breaking the law, to deny Amazon (AMZN) workers the right to join a union so that they can negotiate for better wages, better working conditions and better benefits?" Sanders asked. "How much do you need?"

Amazon (AMZN) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the panel, criticized Sanders for singling out Amazon (AMZN). "This is an effort to get an outcome you want using the United States Senate as your vehicle. This is very dangerous," he said. "You can have oversight hearings how you like but you determine Amazon (AMZN) is a piece of crap company. That's your political bias."

Sean O'Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said one of the ways to hold Amazon (AMZN) accountable is for the government to take back contracts with companies "until they are a responsible employer."

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a White House meeting with Smalls and labor leaders on Thursday seeking to represent workers at Amazon (AMZN), Starbucks Corp and other employers.

Last week, Sanders urged Biden to issue an executive order cutting off federal contracts to Amazon (AMZN), saying the online retailer "has become the poster child for illegal anti-union behavior while raking in billions in federal contracts."

Amazon (AMZN) workers voted against unionizing a second warehouse in New York City, a ballot count on Monday showed, representing a defeat for labor organizers just weeks after they celebrated their first U.S. win at the online retailer.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Nandita Bose in WashingtonEditing by Chris Sanders and Matthew Lewis)

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