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CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Hey, everyone. It's Cardiff, and today I am joined by NPR business correspondent Alina Selyukh.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello, hello.
GARCIA: Alina, you are joining us today because you're tackling a question that you've actually been getting a lot lately.
SELYUKH: Yeah, it usually goes something like, wow, why Alabama? I didn't see it coming - both a question and a statement.
GARCIA: Alabama - shout out to the great state of Alabama. Specifically, Alina, you're getting this question, why Alabama, because you cover Amazon.
SELYUKH: Yes. And as we speak, there's one massive Amazon warehouse where 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.
GARCIA: And one of the most valuable companies in the world, also.
SELYUKH: 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 at warehouses all around the country. But the first one to get to this potentially historic union vote is a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.
GARCIA: OK. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Today on the show - how a warehouse union election could upend history for both Amazon and the South.
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GARCIA: OK, Alina, to understand what is happening at this Alabama warehouse, I'm guessing we should start by looking at the (inaudible).
SELYUKH: Some history, yes - and I spoke to just the person for that.
JIM SPITZLEY: My name is Jim Spitzley (ph), and I'm a IQT/Voca auditor for Mercedes-Benz U.S. International. We do audits on vehicles after they're built.
SELYUKH: Jim has a very unique perspective on the union vote at Amazon because his Mercedes plant - that was the epicenter of the last time a super-high-profile labor battle played out in the state of Alabama.
GARCIA: Yeah, and it makes sense that we'd be talking about auto plants because, of course, a lot of foreign automakers have been opening factories in the South for decades now, like since the '90s.
SELYUKH: 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.
SPITZLEY: They're coming here because of the fact that there is not a fear of unions. You know, they're saying that we're just not educated, you know, country bumpkins and whatnot. They don't know nothing about unions and don't care nothing (ph).
SELYUKH: A lot of this stems from right-to-work laws in 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 intense anti-union campaigns. All labor experts I talked to about unionization in Alabama brought up this period of time, like Michael Innis-Jimenez from the University of Alabama.
MICHAEL INNIS-JIMENEZ: The billboard that I'll never forget - do you want Tuscaloosa to be the next Detroit? You know, let's throw race in there, too, obviously - but, you know, seeing this post-industrial city in a lot of pain and blaming that on the unions.
SELYUKH: 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's Mercedes plant in Alabama, UAW didn't even petition for a vote.
SPITZLEY: You know, that's what it all comes down to is getting that vote. And we haven't got that in 25 years on three attempts.
GARCIA: So this sets the stage for where we are now. This is why, Alina, so many people have been asking you how Alabama became the first state to potentially have a unionized Amazon warehouse.
SELYUKH: Right, that's why so many people find it surprising. But I actually think that could be one of the three main reasons why this warehouse got to a 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 in Alabama compared to more traditionally activist places.
GARCIA: OK, so that's factor No. 1.
GARCIA: What are the other two?
SELYUKH: Two others are about the time and the place. And let's start with the time. This is one of the things I heard from the union that's helping organize Amazon workers in Bessemer. The union is 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.
STUART APPELBAUM: I believe that the pandemic opened a lot of people's eyes. They 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 were not being realized.
SELYUKH: Amazon has been raking in profits during the pandemic, which workers often bring up. And also, Amazon went on a massive hiring spree.
GARCIA: Yeah. And this, by the way, is often when workers end up gaining some more power, which is when they know that the employer needs more workers.
SELYUKH: The retail union folks say the Bessemer warehouse workers reached out to them quietly in the summer. They were describing grueling productivity quotas. They wanted to have more say in how they work, how they get disciplined, how they get fired. The union then mobilized a support system of other folks from the region who are already unionized, particularly workers from poultry plants.
GARCIA: And that brings us to your third factor, Alina, which is the place, right?
SELYUKH: Exactly. Professor Michael Innis-Jimenez pointed out something notable about Alabama that few people might realize.
INNIS-JIMENEZ: If you follow the border and the coastline between California and Maryland, Alabama has the highest unionization rate for every state between California and Maryland and then through on Tennessee also.
SELYUKH: It's a pretty low rate. 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. It's got early roots in 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.
GARCIA: And, of course, this is all happening on the heels of the Black Lives Matter protests.
SELYUKH: Yes, exactly. But the union also presents it as part of its history. You know, its members marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the '60s. The union president talks about how in the South, labor and civil rights battles have always been intertwined.
GARCIA: And so, Alina, do people think that all of these things - that at the time, the place, the context will end up making a difference and give Alabama the nation's first unionized Amazon warehouse?
SELYUKH: The union certainly hopes so. Folks there told me more than half of the workers at the Bessemer warehouse signed petitions for a 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.
GARCIA: Yeah. And for context, the minimum wage in Alabama is also the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour, which makes Amazon's starting wage of $15 an hour more than double the Alabama minimum.
SELYUKH: That is actually a big point for Jim Spitzley over at the Mercedes-Benz plant as he's watching this big Amazon union vote play out.
SPITZLEY: It'll send not a tsunami ripple, but it's going to send one. It's going to let people know that, hey, even people at $15 an hour, $17 an hour, can have a union in their workplace.
SELYUKH: The Bessemer warehouse workers will be voting by mail 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.
GARCIA: Alina Selyukh from NPR's business desk, thanks for joining us.
SELYUKH: Thank you.
GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and fact-checked by Sam Tsai (ph). Special thanks to Claire Miller. And THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch, and it is a production of NPR.
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