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Voting Has Ended In An Amazon Warehouse's Fight To Unionize

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A vote in Alabama has been called one of the most consequential union elections in recent history. Today, voting ends at Amazon's warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., where workers are deciding whether to form that company's first unionized workplace in the U.S. Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters. And NPR's Alina Selyukh is here to give us the latest.

Hi, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello. Hello.

SHAPIRO: First, what's at stake in this union election?

SEYLUKH: Well, it's hard to overstate just how big of a deal both for Amazon and for the American labor movement this election is. Amazon is the second-largest private employer in the U.S. now. For years, it has successfully fought off labor organizing around the country. Now you already have a first. This warehouse is the first one to even have a union vote in years. The last time it was 2014, a small group of - in Delaware rejected a union. And so many eyes are now on these Amazon workers, 5,800 of them. They're voting on this big question. You know, will this start a chain reaction of other warehouses? Union leaders have said that the vote itself has prompted hundreds of new inquiries about unionizing from other places.

SHAPIRO: What are the demands? I mean, what are the pro-union workers pushing for?

SEYLUKH: Overall, it's better working conditions as a throughline. Some of the workers behind the union push talk a lot about grueling work, 10-hour days with only two 30-minute breaks. They also talk about the power dynamics around how workers get disciplined and even fired, this feeling of being disposable, the write-ups people get for so-called time-off tasks, spending too much time away from your station, which includes, like, trips to the bathroom or getting some water. Earlier this month, I talked to Jennifer Bates, who's one of the Bessemer workers that helped organize the vote.

JENNIFER BATES: It could be an awesome place to work. There are some good qualities, but then there are some things that need to be repaired. And so I chose and others chose to stand up and do something about it.

SEYLUKH: Another theme that comes up a lot is the immense wealth of Amazon itself, which during the pandemic repeatedly said new profit records, and, of course, CEO Jeff Bezos, who is the richest person in the world.

SHAPIRO: And what's the company saying about this union push in Alabama?

SEYLUKH: Well, at first, it seemed like the union vote actually took Amazon by surprise. Bessemer is one of the newest warehouses in the country. Plus, it's in Alabama, where unions historically are a tough sell. Then Amazon staged a strong campaign to sway workers against unionizing. There were mandatory meetings. They blanketed the warehouse with this message of do it without dues, arguing that the union just wants to take workers' money in the form of dues while Amazon already offers generous benefits and wages far higher than the local minimum. It is worth noting that unlike in many other states, in Alabama, by law, union members cannot actually be required to pay dues. But Amazon's message has resonated with some of the workers who are afraid that the union would just take their money to organize other warehouses, for example.

SHAPIRO: So when are we going to know how this vote turns out?

SEYLUKH: Well, the vote count is slated to begin tomorrow. It's going to be a bit of a cumbersome procedure playing out over Zoom video because this is our life now. Federal labor officials will be tallying the votes by hand, and we should know the results in the next few days.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Alina Selyukh, thanks a lot.

SEYLUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.