Amazon Unionization Efforts Fails In Alabama; What It Means For U.S. Labor : Consider This from NPR A movement to unionize workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., was seen as a potential turning point for the American labor movement. But the effort failed resoundingly. Stephan Bisaha of member station WBHM in Birmingham examines why.

Mohamed Younis, editor-in-chief of Gallup, tells NPR that public opinion of labor unions is generally lower in the South.

Additional reporting this episode from NPR's Alina Selyukh.

In participating regions, you'll also hear from local journalists about what's happening in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.
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What Amazon's Defeat Of Union Effort Means For The Future Of American Labor

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What Amazon's Defeat Of Union Effort Means For The Future Of American Labor

What Amazon's Defeat Of Union Effort Means For The Future Of American Labor

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What happened this month in Bessemer, Ala., was supposed to have ripple effects around the country.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Amazon warehouse in Bessemer has become ground zero for one of the most contentious union fights in modern American history.

CHANG: Workers at a single Amazon warehouse were headed towards a high-stakes vote on whether or not to join a union.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Amazon employs hundreds of thousands of Americans. When you look at these warehouse jobs, they've become basically the new factory jobs in America.

CHANG: But in Alabama, some workers said those jobs didn't pay enough for long, grueling hours with little time for breaks.

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BERNIE SANDERS: Workers all over this country are going to be saying, if these people in Alabama could take on the wealthiest guy in the world, we can do it as well.

CHANG: The unionization effort got a ton of national and international attention. Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed the effort, and so did Republican Marco Rubio. Even President Biden weighed in.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice.

CHANG: This was seen as the most consequential labor dispute in years. Amazon is now the country's second-largest private employer, run by the richest man in the world, and its growth has been accelerated by this pandemic.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Is this kind of a David versus Goliath scenario?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: I really love that analogy, Alex (ph). It is really David versus Goliath. And there's...

CHANG: A successful vote to unionize in Bessemer, the first in the entire company, would have been a huge deal.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: The vote count is in, and Amazon has won enough votes to beat the union effort in Alabama.

CHANG: In the end...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: By a more than 2-to-1 margin...

CHANG: ...It wasn't even close.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: ...Employees voted against joining a union. The campaign to unionize had been seen as a potential turning point in labor relations in the U.S.

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REBECCA GIVAN: I think organizing a union under current labor law is extremely challenging. It's very difficult, and the odds are always stacked against you. So I think...

CHANG: Rebecca Givan is a labor studies professor at Rutgers University.

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GIVAN: We're really seeing how the balance is always tipped in favor of employers.

CHANG: CONSIDER THIS - Amazon's resounding victory in Alabama is part of a long move in America away from organized labor. We'll explore why its supporters face such an uphill battle.

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CHANG: From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Friday, April 16.

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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. One of the arguments Amazon appears to have dispatched persuasively is that belonging to a union means you pay dues, and that means less money in your pocket.

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WILLIAM STOKES: You know, the union can't promise you $25 to $26 an hour. If they're doing that, that's a lie.

CHANG: William Stokes and his wife Lavonette both work at the warehouse in Bessemer.

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W STOKES: You know, they...

LAVONETTE STOKES: They can't make Amazon do anything.

W STOKES: There are problems within Amazon, but those problems are problems that can be fixed. And they're not as bad as the media and some disgruntled employees have said.

CHANG: The union that Stokes and other workers in Alabama voted not to join is called the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWSDU (ph). It's promised to move forward with legal challenges against Amazon.

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STUART APPELBAUM: The results demonstrate the powerful impact of employer intimidation and interference.

CHANG: That's union president Stuart Appelbaum. The union accused Amazon of confusing, misleading, even scaring workers into voting not to join. You may have heard about some of the company's more controversial anti-union efforts, from hanging anti-union signs at the warehouse on the inside of bathroom stalls to a request the company made for local authorities to speed up the timing of a red light near the warehouse, a traffic light, which union organizers claim was meant to stop them from speaking to workers while they sat in their cars.

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APPELBAUM: We will be filing multiple charges with the labor board, and we are confident that the charges will be upheld.

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CHANG: The thing is, the National Labor Relations Board is considered pretty toothless on these matters. Any legal challenge won't be decided for months. And even if the union wins, it likely will not lead to any repercussions more serious than Amazon hanging up a few flyers in their warehouse. So what comes next for workers in Bessemer and around the country? Well, here's Stephan Bisaha with member station WBHM in Birmingham.

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STEPHAN BISAHA: Amazon worker Carla Johnson says she's happy to just move on after nearly a two-month-long union election.

CARLA JOHNSON: I'm glad it's over (laughter). I'm glad it's over, and I can stop getting the emails, the phone calls, you know, from the union reps.

BISAHA: Johnson voted against unionizing, both because she trusts Amazon and distrusts the union's promises about raising pay and improving work conditions. She's hoping her co-workers who voted for the union can also move on, but she doubts that.

JOHNSON: Do I think that they're going to just be OK and let it rest? I don't.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When workers' rights are under attack, what do we do?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stand up, fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we do?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stand up, fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we do?

BISAHA: Organizers and workers held a rally outside the union's Birmingham headquarters on Sunday. Amazon worker Jennifer Bates said they were going to challenge the election results.

JENNIFER BATES: We're not running away with our tails behind us because there was no victory. There was illegal things taking place and fear tactics that was done to people who didn't have any idea about what a union could do for them.

BISAHA: The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union says it plans on filing unfair labor practice charges against Amazon. Some workers want a new election, but that defiant attitude at the rally does not match what's happening inside the warehouse. Pro-union worker Kevin Jackson says the atmosphere is still tense.

KEVIN JACKSON: I say it was kind of a creepy kind of way because everybody's still - is standing on eggshells, know what I'm saying? People just don't talk about it. But it's like, you could feel it.

BISAHA: Jackson and union supporters say they've heard from some workers that regret voting against a union, but he admits the loss will make a second election harder. He says after getting knocked down in the first round, they're back in the corner trying to come up with a new plan.

JACKSON: You know what I'm saying? You take a hit, you got to regroup and go on with another strategy.

BISAHA: Union backers say the labor movement was already in such a rough shape before the vote, a loss in Alabama can't make things much worse. But New Orleans-based union organizer Wade Rathke has a more ominous interpretation.

WADE RATHKE: You're going to go after a big bear, you better - you know, if you slap it, you better bring it down. And this was a...

BISAHA: Rathke's skeptical that the legal challenges will make a difference or that another election would do better.

RATHKE: Once you've beaten a union this bad, it's very difficult to believe that you can somehow move those noes to yeses or get people who didn't vote to vote when you've proven that the company can beat you.

BISAHA: There are actually a few things working in favor of unions today - the pandemic relabeled low-skill jobs as essential, president Joe Biden strongly supports unions, jobs created by his proposed infrastructure plan would go to unionized workers, and, Rathke notes, a recent Gallup poll shows most Americans approve of unions.

RATHKE: Yet we're losing badly in places like Bessemer. That's a disconnect.

BISAHA: Today, just a little more than 6% of private sector employees are part of a union. Democrats want to address that disconnect by helping workers organize. The House approved the Pro Act, meant to protect those workers. It's now in the hands of the Senate. But Democrats have been trying to pass major labor law reform since the Carter administration without any success.

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CHANG: That's Stephen Bisaha with member station WBHM in Birmingham. You heard him mention Gallup, which, since 1936, has been asking Americans the same question.

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MOHAMED YOUNIS: Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions?

CHANG: That is Mohamed Younis, Gallup editor in chief. Back in 1936, he says...

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YOUNIS: Seventy-two percent of Americans at the time approved.

CHANG: And you might expect that number to be a lot lower today, but...

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YOUNIS: Last year when we asked this question, 65% of Americans approved of labor unions. So overall, Ailsa, it's been a pretty consistent pattern of a majority approval, with some exceptions that we can definitely dig into.

CHANG: Despite that level of public support, the rates of union membership in America have been declining steadily for decades. I spoke to Younis about why Amazon workers in Bessemer appear to have joined that trend.

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CHANG: As for the people who do tend to support unions, who are they, like, when it comes to age and region of the country?

YOUNIS: Young people are the most likely to have a high approval rating of unions. Those who are 18 to 34 have a 68% approval rating of unions. The older age groups are actually more likely to say they are members of a union, but their approval rating also is about in that 60s range. The real difference is along party ID or political identification, where Democrats, about 8 in 10 say they approve of unions, 6 in 10 independents and only 4 in 10 Republicans, although that is an improvement from 2009, when it was down at about 30%.

CHANG: OK. Well, let's talk about the specific Amazon warehouse vote in Bessemer, Ala., now, where a majority of workers, as we said, voted not to unionize. Were you surprised by that vote?

YOUNIS: Well, based on the data, we shouldn't be surprised. And I'll tell you why. Across many years now, what we've found regionally in the United States is that the Eastern region, speaking broadly, tends to be more positive on unions and also have a higher union membership. We know that the South actually has the lowest rate of both approval and union membership across all the regions of the U.S. So if you compare the East at - 8% of people say they themselves are a member, 20% of households in the East, compared to only 4% of respondents in the South and 10% of households in the South. So it's not that surprising when you look at the data. But again, you know, every one of these situations is really unfolding on its own merits and not necessarily based on public opinion.

CHANG: Well, what do you think the future might look like when it comes to public opinion for unions?

YOUNIS: Pretty much if the past equals the future, they can hold on. But if there is a really big focus on a - sort of a negative case study or a negative case in point of a union being involved or union leaders being involved, it's not hard to imagine that these perceptions could turn really quickly. One thing that is certain is public opinion in the United States around topics that tend to be often politicized or at least find themselves in political news cycles can really change depending on the rhetoric and some of the party ID factors that are at play in the data.

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CHANG: That's Mohamed Younis, editor in chief of Gallup and host of "The Gallup Podcast." You heard some additional reporting this episode on Amazon's union fight in Alabama from NPR's Alina Selyukh.

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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.

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