The Indicator from Planet Money - Alabama: The Newest Union Battleground

Amazon workers in Alabama are voting on whether to form the company's FIRST U.S. union. We explain how the union has succeeded in getting this far, and the potential ramifications of the vote.

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Content Keywords: Amazon Union Jim spitzley

everyone is Cardiff in today. I am joined by NPR business correspondent Alina. Selyukh Olina. Hi. Hello. Hello is today because you're tackling a question that you've actually been getting a lot lately. Yeah, it usually goes something like wow why Alabama, I didn't see it coming with a question and a statement Alabama. Shout out to the great state of Alabama specifically that you're getting these question why Alabama because you cover Amazon, yes, and as we speak there is one massive Amazon warehouse. We're almost 6,000 workers are currently voting on a potentially groundbreaking decision a decision. Whether to unionize this is the first unionization vote at Amazon in years at a company. That's now the second largest employer in the country and one of the most valuable companies in the world also and there's more if these workers vote Yes, their warehouse would become the

First ever unionized Amazon warehouse in America for years. We've been watching labor organizers and workers try to Galvanize that warehouse is all around the country. But the first one to get to this potentially historic union vote in the warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama Warehouse Union election could have been history for both Amazon and the South

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Of the last time a super high-profile labor battle played out in the state of Alabama in the South for decades now like since the 90s, yes, and they brought a lot of new jobs and Jim, you know, he loves his job, but he has a pretty glum view of why these foreign car companies came to the south in the first place. They're coming here because of the fact that there is not fear of Union, you know, they're saying that you were just not educated ghetto country bumpkins and whatnot. They don't know nothing about unions and don't care nothing of this stems from right to work laws and all the southern states which say that each worker can choose not to pay union dues still the Auto industry is historically pretty unionized. So the big Auto Union the United Auto Workers decided to go after these new Southern factories prompting intends anti-union camp.

All labor experts I talk to you about unionization and Alabama brought up this. Of time. Like Michael in a cement is from the University of Alabama the next Detroit now the store race in there too, obviously, but you don't see me this post industrial city in a lot of pain and blaming that on the unions and then something incredible happened workers at Volkswagen in Tennessee voted against the union and VW was the one company that actually wanted a union it was the governor and Republican lawmakers who fought against it from there things just unraveled Nissan workers in Mississippi. Also rejected the Union at Jim spitzley is Mercedes plant in Alabama for about you know, that's what it all comes down to is getting that boat and we haven't got that in 25 years on three attempts to stay where we are. Now. This is why

I know so many people have been asking you how Alabama became the first state to potentially have a unionized Amazon warehouse, right? That's why so many people find it surprising but I actually think that could be one of the three main reasons. Why does Warehouse got to union vote so quickly we know Amazon has Stamped Out Union attempts in other places, perhaps the company also wasn't expecting such aggressive organizing it in Alabama compared to more traditionally activist places. What are the other two and the place and then let's start with a time. This is one of the things I heard from the union that's helping organize Amazon workers in Bessemer. Do you know it's called the retail wholesale and department store Union and its president Stuart Appelbaum pointed out that this Warehouse is only about a year old. So it opened right as the pandemic started. I believe that's open to a lot of people size.

A understand now that they need a collective voice to stand up for themselves and to protect themselves. I also think that people had expectations when they came in that we're not being realized Amazon has been raking in profits during the pandemic which workers often bring up and also Amazon went on a massive hiring spree. By the way is Austin when workers end up gaining some more power which is when they know that the employer needs more workers in the summer. They were describing grueling productivity quotas. They wanted to have more say and how they work how they get disciplined how they get fired the union then mobilized support system of other folks from the region who are already unionized particularly workers from poultry plant and that brings us to your third Factor Alina, which is the place right?

Exactly Professor Michael in the cement has pointed out something notable about Alabama. That's you people might realize line between California and Maryland Alabama has the highest ionization rate for every state between California and Maryland to them throw in Tennessee. Also only about 8% of Alabama workers are union members, which is lower than the national average but it is higher than all other Southern States and then you've got the specific location of this Amazon warehouse, which is Bessemer. It's a working-class suburb of Birmingham. Its got early roots and steel and Mining and unionized labor. And another thing about Bessemer is that it's a community that's predominantly black and the Amazon unionization campaign is evoking social justice themes focusing a lot on respect in the workplace. Of course, this is all happening on the heels of the black lives matter protest.

You know its members marched with Martin Luther King jr. In the sixties the union president talks about how in the South labor and civil rights battles have always been intertwined do people think that all of these things. So the time the play's the context will end up making a difference and give Alabama the nation's first unionized Amazon warehouse in certainly hope so folks. They're told me more than half of the workers at the Bessemer Warehouse sign petitions for Union shop. So they think this could be it. Of course Amazon for its part has led a big anti-union campaign. They've got required meetings where workers were told how union dues are a waste of money how great these jobs are already with all the benefits and the starting wage of $15 an hour for context. The minimum wage in Alabama is also the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour, which makes Amazon starting wage of $15 an hour or more than

The Alabama minimum that is actually a big point for Jim spitzley Over the Mercedes-Benz plant as he's watching this big amazon union vote play out. It's going to send one. It's going to let people know that hey even people that $15 an hour $17 an hour can have a union in their workplace else through the end of March if this vote succeeds at an anti-union place like Amazon in Alabama, this could turn a whole new page for both the company and the region

Play Natalia from NPR's business test. Thanks for joining us. Thank you.

This episode of the indicator was produced by General Hospital and fact check Buy Samsung by special. Thanks to Clare Miller and the indicator is edited by Patty Hirsch and it is a production of NPR.

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