Rebeca: I'm Rebeca Ibarra filling in for Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway. The drive to unionize Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama continues to intensify with some celebrities and elected officials announcing their support. Last weekend, although he didn't endorse the formation of the Union President Biden chimed in.
President Biden: Today and over the next few days and weeks workers in Alabama and all across America are voting whether to organize a union in their workplace. This is vitally important, a vitally important choice. As America grapples with a deadly pandemic, the economic crisis, and the reckoning on race, what it reveals, the deep disparities that still exist in our country.
Rebeca: For the past few months, the Amazon workers in Alabama have been organizing against a company that has vehemently fought unionization efforts in the past. In early February, workers began casting their votes on whether to form a union or not. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon workers began denouncing difficult working conditions saying the company was exploiting them, making them work long hours for little pay, and under precarious conditions. If the majority of workers in the Alabama warehouse vote yes, this will be the first Amazon workplace to be unionized.
Here to help us understand the unionizing efforts in Alabama is Lauren Kaori Gurley staff writer at Motherboard vice's tech site. Lauren, great to have you back.
Lauren: Thank you so much for having me, Rebeca.
Rebeca: Can you tell us what workers have been telling you regarding the unionization efforts? How are they feeling?
Lauren: I was actually down in Bessemer, Alabama last week, interviewing workers. I think there are very strong yes and no camps and still a lot of undecided or uninterested voters. The job is extremely draining and difficult and you have a lot of people who are really focused on that. That said like I said, there is a very strong contingent of workers who feel that-- This warehouse only opened in March of 2020, so it's brand new. They feel like Amazon has let them down. They did not realize how stressful and straining on their bodies and mental health this job is. They didn't recognize that before and they began organizing very early on and received-- The union drive gained momentum, quicker and more forcefully than any other Amazon union drive that has, taken place so far in the company's history.
Rebeca: You've reported on the many ways Amazon has challenged unionization efforts. Let's break down some of these examples in Alabama. What kind of outreach has Amazon been engaging in with workers.
Lauren: Oh, my God, so much outreach. In some ways, it's a classic union-busting campaign. They are posting signs in their warehouse telling workers why joining a union would potentially take away some of their benefits, could lower their wages. There are signs in the bathroom stalls. They are receiving almost daily text messages from Amazon using the same rhetoric. There have been captive audience meetings, some workers have been-- Captive audience meetings are when the employer forces workers on the clock to sit through anti-union presentation.
They are paying the top union-busting law firm and consulting firms in the US to fight this union drive. Some of the more unconventional things they're doing, a lot of this organizing for this union drive has actually incredibly taken place on a small strip of sidewalk outside of the warehouse in Bessemer, where organizers have access. It's a brief moment before the slot street light changes where workers and organizers can talk. Amazon had the traffic light where this was all taking place changed and made it shorter. They requested from the county, Jefferson County where Bessemer is to change that stoplight, which was what the whole-- Their whole strategy was predicated around that.
They've also installed a USPS mailbox on-site. They're not allowed to do on-site voting. The NLRB said no on-site voting because of COVID, only mail-in voting. Amazon has cleverly gotten USPS to install a mailbox feet away from the front door of the facility and is now texting workers to vote from there, workers say they feel surveilled. There are a ton of different tactics that they're using. They're passing out vote no t-shirts, they're passing around things that workers can put in their card indicate that they're voting no. They're sending out care packages to workers who might be sick with literature about why they should vote no. The list goes on and on.
Rebeca: Is this legal? Does the National Labor Review Board allow this to happen during a unionization drive?
Lauren: Yes. The NLRB they allow-- There's a very fine line about what you can and can't do. For example, you cannot ask a worker, Are you voting yes or no? Do you support the union drive or not? You can use other tactics, like telling workers why maybe what negative things could happen if they join unions. You can basically lie and create propaganda, about anti-union propaganda. You cannot interfere with workers' right under the National Labor Relations Act to organize. You cannot retaliate against workers who are pro-union. You cannot surveil them or even create the impression of surveillance.
Amazon is occupying this gray area where they have these top union-busting lawyers in the country, figuring out ways where they can bend the rules without breaking the law and get their anti-union message across.
Rebeca: Do we know if other Amazon warehouse locations are also looking to unionize, are they looking to Alabama for inspiration?
Lauren: Yes, actually last week, a group of teamsters local in Iowa announced that they were organizing two distribution centers in Iowa. We've seen a huge uptick in organizing an Amazon warehouses since the pandemic started and since Amazon briefly offered $2 of hazard pay and then took it away and briefly offered unlimited unpaid leave and then took it away.
We've seen walk-outs and organizing going on in Sacramento in Queens New York, in Chicago, near the Twin Cities in Minnesota in the Inland Empire of California. These organizing drives some of them are with the hub of the Union, some of them are independent worker-led. Those ones, the latter ones I just mentioned aren't directly a response to what's going on in Alabama. They were going on beforehand, but I think a lot of people feel galvanized and energized by what's going on in Alabama. I think we can expect to see more of this regardless of whether the union wins in Alabama or not.
Rebeca: Lauren Kaori Gurley is a staff writer at Motherboard vice's tech site. Lauren, thank you so much for joining us.
Lauren: Thank you so much.
Rebeca: We reached out to Amazon for this story and spokesperson Heather Knox sent us a statement. Here's an excerpt. "We don't believe the retail wholesale and department store union 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, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs. It's important that employees understand the facts of joining a union and the election process. We will provide education about that and the election process so they can make an informed decision. Companies are permitted to communicate with their views about unions or a specific union to their employees, just as unions may freely express theirs on the same topics."
You can read the entirety of Amazon statement on the takeaway.org
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