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News brief: U.S. officials visit Kyiv, French election, 2nd Amazon union vote

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have wrapped up a not-so-secret visit to Ukraine, where they met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's the first official U.S. visit since the war began. The U.S. officials pledged more cash and more weapons. Speaking in Poland this morning, Secretary Blinken voiced confidence in Ukraine's military.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: Russia is failing. Ukraine is succeeding. Russia has sought, as its principal aim, to totally subjugate Ukraine, to take away its sovereignty, to take away its independence. That has failed.

FADEL: He announced that U.S. diplomats could return to Kyiv in coming weeks.

MARTIN: OK, so what more was promised? NPR's Brian Mann joins us this morning from Odesa in the south of Ukraine. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What more can you tell us about what came out of this visit?

MANN: Well, I think the first big message here was that the U.S. plans to stick by Ukraine. Along with all the money and firepower promised, this was really a symbolic gesture, this visit - two high-level U.S. officials in Ukraine's capital just weeks after the Russian army tried to capture Kyiv. Austin and Blinken did promise to boost military aid to Eastern Europe by another $700 million, including money to help countries in the region support Ukraine with guns and ammunition and the heavy weaponry that Ukrainian officials say they desperately need. Secretary Austin said those big guns from the U.S. are already arriving.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: We are doing everything that we can to get them the types of support, the types of artillery and munitions that will be effective in this stage of the fight.

MANN: And the Biden administration did also announce, after a long delay, they plan to finally nominate an ambassador to Ukraine, an experienced foreign service officer named Bridget Brink. She's now serving as ambassador to Slovakia. And the U.S. is going to also gradually reestablish its permanent diplomatic presence in Ukraine, eventually even reopening the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

MARTIN: Although, we should say, that's a slower pace than several European allies, which have already sent their ambassadors back to Kyiv or have plans to do so. So, Brian, as we noted, you're in Odesa. This is the main port city in the south of the country. And it's been pretty quiet there for the duration of the war. There were, though, these missile strikes over the weekend that killed eight people. Can you tell us what happened?

MANN: Yeah, this was really the latest wrenching moment in Russia's assault, Rachel. A missile struck an apartment building here. A young mother and a 3-month-old child were among the dead. Odesa had felt relatively safe, as you mentioned, and this was a shock coming on the Orthodox Easter weekend. Now some people are choosing to leave. I spoke last night with Ira Volkova, who was getting on an evacuation train to leave Odesa with her two young children.

IRA VOLKOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: "We felt these explosions threaten us, and I'm afraid for the kids," she told me. And Volkova's situation gets at what so many Ukrainians are experiencing right now.

VOLKOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: She told me her husband is away fighting in the war. She doesn't know where he is. Her father was wounded fighting the Russians and is now in a hospital. And her brother is one of the defenders of the devastated city of Mariupol. "We haven't heard anything about him for a month," Ira told me. "We hope for the best."

MARTIN: So this is happening in the south, where Odesa is. Russians are obviously pushing very hard in the east as well. Is there any evidence at this point, Brian, that they are tipping the balance?

MANN: The Russian military says they're hitting hundreds of Ukrainian military targets, and this is shaping up to be a slow, bloody grind, but no big breakthroughs. The Ukrainian military actually claims to have retaken some territory and villages here in the south, where I am, around Kherson. NPR could not confirm that. Also, it does appear some of those Ukrainian soldiers dug in at the steel plant, Mariupol, are still alive. I will say, though, Rachel, the Ukrainians I talked to on the street here are really hopeful. They think their army has bought them time so that those bigger weapons can arrive and be deployed.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann reporting from Odesa, Ukraine. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you.

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MARTIN: OK, President Emmanuel Macron in France and his supporters celebrated his victory in the presidential election there under the Eiffel Tower last night.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking French).

(CHEERING)

FADEL: Macron won a second term, but his lead was much smaller than his victory five years ago. With the excitement, for many, came a feeling of relief. Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally has never come so close to victory.

MARTIN: So what does all this mean for France and Europe, for that matter? Joining us now from Paris, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Hey, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So a lot of the people who voted for Macron, I understand, did so just because they thought he was less bad, a lot less bad, than Marine Le Pen, right?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah...

MARTIN: So is that going to change how Macron governs?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, absolutely. So many people, especially voters on the left and working-class voters, feel betrayed by him. They say his platform is ultra-capitalist, and he's no centrist, and many people think he's very arrogant. But they could not accept, as you said, letting the far right get into power, so they held their nose and voted for five more years of Macron. Macron acknowledged them last night in his speech. Let's listen.

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He said, "I know that many of you did not vote for me or my ideas but just to block the far right." So analysts say he's going to have to govern differently, with less hubris, more consultation. I spoke with political science professor Vincent Martigny, and he said Macron's legitimacy is not quite the same as in 2017. Let's listen to him.

VINCENT MARTIGNY: His mandate is a lot weaker. So he'll have to make compromises. And the problem with Mr. Macron, he's not a very good compromiser. He's somebody who says, I listen, and at the end, I decide.

MARTIN: So meanwhile, I mean, for Marine Le Pen, she lost the election, but, I mean, just coming this close is a kind of victory in itself, isn't it?

BEARDSLEY: Oh, completely, Rachel. You know, she's campaigned as much more mainstream this time around. She didn't focus on immigration or have any kind of racist talk. A further-right candidate in the first round did that. She connected with voters on the economy, cost-of-living issues, and she gained a lot more voters. And her concession speech early on last night sounded more like a victory speech. Let's listen to her.

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MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: So she says, "with more than 43% of the vote, the results are a stunning victory. We're more determined than ever." She actually got around 41%, but she's right; it's a victory for her because the far right has never had such a huge score. She's now got her eye on the June legislative elections, which are very important. They're even known as the third round of the presidential election. She's going to try to deprive Macron of his majority, which he will need if he's going to implement his agenda.

MARTIN: So place this in context for us, then, in a big-picture way, Eleanor. What does this election say about France right now?

BEARDSLEY: So while it's complicated for Macron domestically, his win is a clear victory for Europe. And you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief across the continent at not having to deal with a President Le Pen, who could have been an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and would have chipped away at the union. It would have been a huge blow to the bloc at such a crucial time. And congratulations poured in from across Europe, and Macron also got a congratulatory tweet from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in French, who called him a real friend of Ukraine.

MARTIN: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reporting from Paris on the results of the French presidential election. Thank you so much, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Great to be with you guys.

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MARTIN: Amazon labor unions are looking for another win in New York.

FADEL: Today, Amazon workers at a sorting facility in Staten Island will vote on whether or not to unionize. Roughly 1,500 warehouse workers are eligible to vote in the election, which goes on all week.

MARTIN: NPR's Andrea Hsu is with us. And, Andrea, I mean, I'm probably not alone in remembering that this sort of just happened, didn't it? Wasn't there just a big union win at an Amazon facility in Staten Island?

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Yeah, this is the second Amazon warehouse to vote on a union there. The first one was a much larger warehouse with more than 8,000 workers. It made history just several weeks ago when it became the first facility in the U.S. to unionize at Amazon. Now, that same scrappy union, the Amazon Labor Union that's run by former and current workers, they're trying to unionize the warehouse across the street. The workers there sort packages depending on where they're going, get them loaded onto trucks, and it's a physically demanding job that's very fast paced. Workers lift packages as heavy as 50 pounds. And what some of the workers say is that they want more breaks. They want better health and safety policies, along with more money, of course.

MARTIN: So as recently as a month ago, I mean, a whole lot of people doubted whether any union could organize at Amazon. Now that it's happened once, is there momentum in the pro-labor direction?

HSU: Well, certainly the Amazon Labor Union would say so. They're vowing that this is only beginning. Yesterday, they had this big rally outside the warehouse. Bernie Sanders was one of a number of notable guests, and here's what he said.

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BERNIE SANDERS: You have taken on one of the most powerful corporations in America. They spent millions of dollars trying to defeat you, and you beat them.

(CHEERING)

HSU: And Chris Smalls, the president of the union, says he's been contacted by workers at a hundred Amazon facilities across the U.S. who are interested in joining them. But Amazon is continuing to fight. They have spent millions of dollars on anti-union consultants, as the senator said, and they filed objections to the results of the first election, the one they lost. They say the National Labor Relations Board favored the union and helped them secure victory. And Amazon has also objected to some of the union's actions, charging that organizers harassed and threatened employees who weren't supporting the union and gave marijuana to workers in return for their support. In fact, the union organizers say they did give out weed, but not as a bribe. So a hearing is going to be held to consider these objections.

MARTIN: OK, so that's what's happening in Staten Island in New York. What about elsewhere, though?

HSU: Well, the other big warehouse that's voted is in Bessemer, Ala. - about 6,000 workers in that warehouse. There's no final result there because there are still hundreds of contested ballots, and now both sides, Amazon and the union, have filed objections. So that is dragging on. And then, Rachel, there was this brief hubbub last week when an election was announced at a small Amazon facility in New Jersey with 200 workers. Local 713 of the International Brotherhood of Trade Unions was the union behind this. It has no ties with the Amazon Labor Union. In the past decade, a couple of its leaders were indicted on corruption charges. I couldn't find a contact number for this union, so I reached out to a lawyer listed on some paperwork, and he informed me that the union had withdrawn its petition for an election. So a bit of a mystery there. And for now, the focus remains on Staten Island.

MARTIN: OK. We'll keep following it. NPR's Andrea Hsu. Thank you so much.

HSU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.