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Amazon Is Fighting Hard Against A Unionization Effort In Alabama

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

First came the headlines calling it historic and groundbreaking, then celebrities, lawmakers and reporters came to see it for themselves - a massive Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., where thousands of workers are now voting on whether to form Amazon's first warehouse union in the United States. Meanwhile, the company is fighting hard against that possibility. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Jennifer Bates sits on her patio and takes a deep breath.

JENNIFER BATES: Trying to drink my tea to relax myself.

SELYUKH: She's been doing a lot of interviews lately, telling the world about the Amazon warehouse where she works. It's new and has 5,800 workers voting right now in Amazon's first union election in years, which has everyone on edge, anxious.

BATES: Oh, my God, my stomach - I keep butterflies. And butterflies normally come to calm me, but this is - my stomach stays full, and it seems like it's getting bigger and bigger full of butterflies because it's nerve-wracking to think I don't know how it's going to go.

SELYUKH: The pressure is high, so are the stakes. Amazon for decades has fought off unions in American warehouses. Labor groups say this vote already prompted hundreds of new inquiries from workers in other cities. But unions are a tough sell in Alabama, and Bessemer's mail-in election is a long seven weeks. And things ramped up quickly with Amazon's big presentations to convince workers that a union was unnecessary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOSEPH JONES: Weekly mandatory meetings that they hold. Well, let me say that again - weekly mandatory meetings that they hold.

SELYUKH: That's another pro-union worker, Joseph Jones, talking to NPR's Sam Sanders a month ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JONES: You go to the break area, and every week you go in, there are different banners of information of how scary a union would be and, you know, vote no everywhere you look.

SELYUKH: The mandatory meetings had to stop by law, but Amazon's campaign continues - in messages over text, in the mail, even on fliers in the bathroom stalls.

BATES: We used to have newsletters there, and now it's replaced with the do it without dues.

SELYUKH: Do it without dues - Amazon claims the union just wants to collect dues, money, while the company already pays wages far above the local minimum, provides health care and other benefits. Bates says managers constantly check in on people while they work.

BATES: Hey. Have you voted yet?

SELYUKH: A few controversies have bubbled up, one over the timing of the red light outside the warehouse, which got shortened in December. Was it to relieve traffic jams for the holiday rush or to stop organizers from talking to workers in their cars? Another over a new mailbox installed for ballots in Amazon's parking lot inside Amazon's tent, which left some workers feeling monitored.

BATES: Everybody started texting each other, I don't trust them.

SELYUKH: Not to be outdone, the labor organizers, too, have been texting, calling and emailing workers. They argue the retail, wholesale and department store union would help Amazon staff get more sway over how they work, give them more say on speed quotas, how Amazon hires, disciplines and fires people. Unions pushed for big-name supporters. Actor Danny Glover visited and a few House Democrats. Georgia's political star Stacey Abrams posted a video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STACEY ABRAMS: I strongly support your efforts to form a union.

SELYUKH: Last week came the big one - President Biden called the election in Alabama vitally important. He didn't name Amazon but touted the value of unions and urged workers to make their voices heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.

SELYUKH: On social media, some Bessemer workers say they're simply tired of all the campaigning and ready for the vote to be over. A webstream showing the ballot counting is planned for the end of March. Bates is still deciding whether she'll watch. The butterflies in her stomach might just be too much.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

KELLY: And we should note that Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF REAL ESTATE SONG, "GREEN AISLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.