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Amazon Workers In Alabama Vote Against Unionizing

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Organized labor suffered a huge loss today in Bessemer, Ala. Amazon workers there voted not to unionize. That means Amazon has withstood the largest labor campaign ever among its workers in the U.S. NPR's Alina Selyukh has been following this union drive and joins us now.

Hey, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello, hello.

CHANG: We should first note that Amazon is among NPR's sponsors. So why did the warehouse workers vote against forming a union?

SELYUKH: Well, it depends on who you ask. We know that across the country, lots of Amazon workers have been raising concerns about warehouse conditions, grueling pace, rules that seem to constantly change. But I also talked to LaVonette Stokes, who works at the Bessemer warehouse, who voted against unionizing. We talked two weeks ago, and she said she found the pay at Amazon fitting for the work. Amazon pays more than double the local minimum. She spoke highly of her benefits. And on top of it all, she doesn't trust the union.

LAVONETTE STOKES: This particular union can't give us anything at Amazon that is not being offered. We already have due process. We have what's called employee relations. H.R. walks the floor. They're on your - every single floor.

SELYUKH: Workers like her delivered a really decisive defeat to the union drive. Votes against unionizing outnumbered votes in favor of a union by more than 2 to 1.

CHANG: Wow. So what do the union and the workers who supported it say about this loss?

SELYUKH: They are gearing up for a legal battle. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which was trying to represent Bessemer workers, is filing charges against Amazon. The union is now accusing the company of confusing, misleading, scaring workers into voting against the union. The legal case is likely to take weeks, if not months.

One of the organizers told reporters today that he's been getting calls from warehouse workers who say they regret voting no. He says they're asking if there's a way to get their ballots back. And here is Bessemer worker Emmet Ashford, who fought for unionizing.

EMMET ASHFORD: Of course we're going to be disappointed, frustrated, angry about the way this election has turned out, but this is just the spark that started a fire across the United States.

SELYUKH: Which is to say he's hoping his warehouse and other Amazon workers will keep trying. But this is such a sweeping defeat after such a high-profile campaign with endorsements from so many celebrities, even President Biden. We'll have to see what kind of organizing energy is still there.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, any word from Amazon today?

SELYUKH: Right. Amazon has rejected accusations of intimidating workers to sway the election and said that it wasn't the company that won this union drive, it was the employees who made the choice to vote against a union.

CHANG: Well, Alina, I mean, this was seen as a potentially watershed moment for labor organizing, right? So I'm curious. What do you think? What does this vote today suggest about the strength of labor unions right now?

SELYUKH: This truly held the promise of a union vote that turns the page in the history of both Amazon and labor given that we are talking about one of the largest employers in the world. And this particular warehouse had almost 6,000 workers. And indeed, unions in the U.S. have been losing members for decades. Some labor experts will say federal laws have had a lot to do with that. I talked to Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University.

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

SELYUKH: Over time, she says, the odds have become stacked against workers who want to unionize. And so Givan and others are wondering whether this stinging union defeat in Bessemer, Ala., might push Congress or the Biden administration to address this balance of power and revisit U.S. labor law.

CHANG: That is NPR's Alina Selyukh.

Thanks, Alina.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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