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Nation & World

Amazon Warehouse Workers Vote 'No' To Union

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Amazon workers at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., have voted against unionizing, defeating the hopes of labor organizers that that would be Amazon's first unionized workplace in the United States, would have been a rare victory in the traditionally anti-union South. But workers overwhelmingly voted against it by a margin of more than 2 to 1. We're joined now by Stephan Bisaha from our member station WBHM in Birmingham. Stephan, thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Was this outcome a surprise in Alabama?

BISAHA: Well, for a lot of people, yes, there was a lot of excitement, a real sense the union had a chance here. So, Bessemer, where this warehouse is located about 20 minutes outside Birmingham, surrounded by trees and really not much else. On the drive there from Birmingham, you see lots of pro-union signs. There've been lots of rallies here with big headline names like actor Danny Glover, Senator Bernie Sanders, congressional delegations coming through. But out of the 6,000 or so workers that actually work at the warehouse, we haven't been seeing many at these rallies. Mostly, it's been crowds of out-of-state organizers for the union or locals in Alabama, Democrat shirts that - they don't really work for Amazon. So really, until this vote, we didn't know what a majority of workers thought. And they definitively voted no.

SIMON: How has the mood changed after the vote?

BISAHA: Well, it was a pretty crushing defeat, more than 2 to 1 against the union. And the union tried to keep up a brave face. On a Zoom press conference on Friday, organizers and a couple workers spoke, including Emmit Ashford (ph). He works at the Amazon warehouse there, and he sent a message to workers telling them to not get discouraged.

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EMMIT ASHFORD: The floodgates have been opened, and we cannot stop it. So I hope everybody has a good day. This news has not discouraged us. And we are holding our head high, marching forward. And we will get what we deserve.

BISAHA: The truth is this was always an uphill battle. I talked to people who have experience organizing unions, and they said it's just really hard to do this in the South but especially hard to do this when going up against a company like Amazon with all its resources and really capable of running a strong anti-union campaign.

SIMON: We've heard about some tough work conditions at Amazon, of course, long hours demanding quotas, very strict prohibitions on breaks and even using the bathroom. What is the argument against unionizing?

BISAHA: Well, the big thing is pay. Amazon pays $15 an hour, more than twice the federal minimum wage. Yes, some warehouses pay more. And if you compare it to manufacturing, it's not as much. But these workers are comparing it to other jobs available to them in Alabama, and they're not seeing other places offer them $15 an hour. Jerry Mitchell is the president of the Alabama Black Chamber of Commerce (ph).

JERRY MITCHELL: You know, in Alabama, we're in dire need of better-paying jobs all around. You know, you have a state where we didn't want to expand Medicare, Medicaid. So, you know, if you can get a job that's providing you a livable wage and some health benefits, then that's definitely a plus.

BISAHA: And he says workers in the state are willing to look the other way on some tough work conditions if they're afraid of losing that relatively high-paying job. There's also a culture of distrust of unions in the South, but there's actually been some benefit to that for people living here. It's a big part of the reason why we've seen so many automakers open new plants here to get away from union strongholds in other parts of the country.

SIMON: Stephan Bisaha from member station WBHM in Birmingham, thanks so much.

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