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High Stakes At A Warehouse: Amazon Fights Against Alabama Union Drive

Michael Foster of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union holds a sign outside an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., where workers are voting on whether to unionize.
Jay Reeves
Michael Foster of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union holds a sign outside an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., where workers are voting on whether to unionize.

Updated March 12, 2021 at 1:02 PM ET

Jennifer Bates often finds peace by drinking tea on her patio. But these days, to use her words — the butterflies have filled up her stomach and won't go away.

"Butterflies normally come to calm me," Bates says. "But this is ... nerve-racking to think I don't know how it's gonna go."

What's unsettling Bates is the ongoing union vote at the Amazon warehouse, where she works. Some 5,800 workers in Bessemer, Ala., are casting their ballots to decide whether to form the company's first warehouse union in America. The election — which ends on March 29 — has the facility, the community, labor groups and the company all on the edge of their seats.

The Bessemer vote has prompted more than 1,000 Amazon workers in other cities to reach out to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the group says. Other unions are reporting spikes in inquiries as well.

Amazon for decades has fought off unions in American warehouses. At Bessemer, the union says about half of the workers signed cards to petition for this election. But unions historically have been a tough sellin Alabama. And Amazon has unleashed a strong push to sway Bessemer workers to vote against unionizing.

Early on, workers say Amazon held regular mandatory meetings — or "information sessions," as Amazon put it — with presentations to convince them that a union is unnecessary. Those meetings had to stop by law, as voting began. But the campaign continued in other ways.

Amazon blanketed parts of the warehouse with banners and fliers: "Do it without dues." The company's message is that the union just wants to collect workers' hard-earned money in the form of dues, while Amazon already pays far above the local minimum, provides healthcare and other benefits. The slogan follows workers even into bathroom stalls, where Amazon replaced other notices with new union-themed fliers. Bates, who's pro-union, says managers regularly check in with workers, ask whether they've voted yet.

"If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site and it's important all associates understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon," Amazon said in a statement. " We don't believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees' views. Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire."

At the same time, the labor organizers, too, have been texting, calling and emailing Bessemer workers. They argue the retail union would help Amazon staff get more sway over how they work, then more say on safety measures and speed quotas, on how Amazon hires, disciplines and fires people. As some workers point out, Alabama's "right to work" laws say employees can opt out of paying union dues.

Amazon's pitch is "Don't let unions come between our relationship," Bates says. "But we don't have a relationship," she responds. "We have a relationship with a computer and an app."

On Friday, the union drive in Bessemer got a new big-name endorsement. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, from neighboring Florida, published an op-ed, accusing Amazon of waging "culture war against working-class values" and saying he stands with the workers.

Previously, actor Danny Gloverand a few House Democrats visited. Statements of solidarity came from Georgia's political star Stacey Abrams, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the big one: President Biden.

"This is vitally important — a vitally important choice," Bidensaid in a videolast week, naming Alabama though not Amazon. "There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda."

So far, a few controversies have bubbled up in Bessemer. One was over why the timing of the red light outside the warehouse was shortened by the county at Amazon's request in December. Was it to relieve traffic jams or to stop organizers from talking to workers in their cars? Amazon says it's common practice for shift changes and peak holiday season.

Another was over a new mailbox that Amazon says was installed by the U.S. Postal Service to make voting "convenient, safe and private." But its position in Amazon's warehouse, inside Amazon's tent, prompted a flurry of text messages among workers, some of whom wondered if Amazon was trying to monitor the vote.

A rumor has gone around that Amazon would simply close the Bessemer facility if workers unionize. A company representative dismissed the speculation, but such comments are common around union elections.

A union drive in 2000 tried to organize 400 Amazon call-center workers in Seattle, but the company shuttered the center amid a reorganization during dot-com bust. In 2014, a small group of maintenance and repair techs at a Delaware warehouse voted against unionizing.

On social media, some Bessemer workers say they're simply tired of all the campaigning and ready for the vote to be over. Federal labor authorities are expected to stream the ballot-counting online. Bates is still deciding whether she'll watch — the butterflies in her stomach might just be too much.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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