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Why Organizing Employee At Alabama Amazon Center Wants A Union

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin with an event that is being called the most important moment for the labor movement in this country in decades. Tomorrow is the final day of a month-long union drive at Amazon's fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala. For weeks, thousands of employees at the warehouse have been casting ballots to decide if they want to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. This week, their votes will begin to be counted. If the vote passes, Bessemer would become Amazon's first unionized warehouse in the United States.

The outcome could have implications far beyond Alabama and beyond Amazon, which is the second-largest private employer in the United States. And before we continue, I do want to note that Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters.

Right now, though, we are going to focus on why Amazon employees in Bessemer want a union and what the past weeks have been like for them, so we called Darryl Richardson. He works at the warehouse, and he was the first employee there to call the retail union. And he is with us now from Bessemer. Darryl Richardson, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DARRYL RICHARDSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us a little bit about what you do at Amazon?

RICHARDSON: I'm a picker. I pick the products that the customer order and pack them and send them over - put them in a tote and send it to a packing area.

MARTIN: How long have you worked at Amazon?

RICHARDSON: A year.

MARTIN: At what point when you started working there did you decide to call the union? Just, like, what was going through your mind that made you feel you needed to call?

RICHARDSON: I worked there about a month or so. I realized there needed to be some changes. I was in an incident one time. I clocked in, and I went to an area called stand-up (ph). There was a couple of employees standing up there waiting to be signed into a station. So I think I stood there about over an hour, and then they assigned me to a station.

Within a couple of days, a PO manager came to me and told me they got a write-up for me, and she asked me where I was at that particular time. And I told her I was up there standing up, waiting to be assigned to a station. And she said, I thought so. And she said, I just need to write that on this piece of paper. And that's all you have to do, is sign and verify that you was at stand-up at that particular time.

And I said, I feel like that's a write-up that's going to be put in my file. And I said, I'm not going to sign because I feel like it's some type of disciplinary action that would affect me later on. And she said, well, it's not a write-up. It's just something verifying that that's where you was at that time. So I said, no, I'm still not going to sign it because - and she said that, well - I said, well, what it really was for? And she said, TOT. You know, it's called TOT if you're not on your station.

MARTIN: Time off task.

RICHARDSON: Time off task. That's where I said, oh, OK. That's when I really found out, you know, what TOT was. And I said, I feel like it ain't right for me to sign it because I did what I had to do. I wasn't assigned to a station, so what I supposed to do? So that made me feel like this company ain't right. So I worked a couple more weeks, and I went to the bathroom. You know, I ain't know you get time for going to the bathroom. Like I said, I didn't - they didn't tell us that. I didn't know you get TOT time for that, too. And I said, oh, no.

MARTIN: How did that make you feel?

RICHARDSON: It just made me feel bad because employees getting fired for no reason - for no reason whatsoever. I ain't never been in a situation like this before, never. And I said, something got to change. So when I got home, I Googled, which union represent Amazon? RWDSU came up, and that's how it got to this point now.

MARTIN: What's it been like inside the facility during the voting period over the past few weeks?

RICHARDSON: Well, we had - before February 8, we had anti-union tactics - meetings, why the company don't want the union, and anti-union fliers in the bathroom over your stall, big banners in and outside the facility - early vote, vote no - and fliers in the break room. Then you have walk-around management from out of town going to employees, talking to them about union. They never came to me, but they talked to employees about why we don't want the union, and vote no - things like that.

MARTIN: What do you think their main argument is why they say people shouldn't join the union?

RICHARDSON: Because the unions just - you have a voice. You're going to be able to speak for yourself. What you going to pay union dues for when you're getting it free? They don't want membership dues. You know, why pay dues?

MARTIN: And what's your answer to that? Do people - have people been asking you your opinion about it since you kind of got the ball rolling? What do you say?

RICHARDSON: Well, when I talk to employees who don't understand about the union, I say they're having the anti-union meetings because they don't want us to benefit off - because any company fight so hard to keep out, it got to be benefitting us.

MARTIN: I understand from some of the other reports that I've read that some of the younger employees are more skeptical about the unions, some of the - than some of the older employees. Has that been your experience also?

RICHARDSON: Yes. Yes, ma'am. Because...

MARTIN: Why is that?

RICHARDSON: Because they just - they don't understand what the union can bring. They was told that if the union come here, Amazon going to shut down. They're going to lose their pay. Their pay going to drop, and their benefits. And don't nobody want to lose their job.

MARTIN: Since it's become clear that you are one of the people that started this ball rolling, have you felt safe? I mean, have you felt - like, we know that Amazon has been aggressive in trying to argue against the union. But do you feel that - yes, it's been aggressive - but do you feel that it's been fair - a fair argument, a fair fight, as it were?

RICHARDSON: No. I don't feel like it's been a fair fight, you know, what their anti tactics are. I feel like, let the employees make the decision. We had a right. If we want to vote for the union, let us make the decision. Don't try to convince me what I need to vote. And if we feel like we want a union, let us - leave us alone. Let us just vote.

MARTIN: I mean, obviously, the vote's still going on, and we aren't going to know until it is concluded what the outcome is. But Mr. Appelbaum, the head of the retail union, said that he says that either way the vote goes, he feels that you and the workers at Bessemer have already won. Well, I don't know. What do you think?

RICHARDSON: I feel like Amazons around the world if - I hate to say if on this right here because I have faith that we're going to win. But if it don't come in, I feel like, yeah, it'll affect all around and all because everybody realize antiunion state, Bessemer, Ala. - if we could try to make a change, everybody else can, too. So I feel like everybody watching us, and we're really making a difference and making a change when it comes to everybody sticking together and standing together.

MARTIN: That was Darryl Richardson. He is one of the workers trying to unionize employees at Amazon's fulfillment warehouse that is in Bessemer, Ala.

Darryl Richardson, thank you so much for spending this time with us.

RICHARDSON: And I thank you guys, too.

MARTIN: I want to note that in an official statement provided to NPR, Amazon said the company does not believe that the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, quote, "represents the majority of our employees' views," unquote. The vote count in Bessemer, Ala., will put that statement to the test.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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