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Alabama Amazon warehouse gets another chance to vote on unionizing

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's turn to some big news for labor organizing today. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are getting another chance to form a union. A federal labor official has approved a new union vote at the warehouse outside of Birmingham. In a previous vote, workers overwhelmingly rejected forming a union. We should note that Amazon is among NPR's recent sponsors. NPR's Alina Selyukh joins us now.

Hey, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello, hello.

KELLY: So why? Why is there going to be a revote?

SELYUKH: So back in the spring, when the union push failed at the warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., the organizing group called the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union challenged the election results. The union argued Amazon cast undue influence over the vote. The union accused Amazon of intimidating workers and illegally swaying them toward rejecting unionization, all of which Amazon denied. But now we have a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board who is siding with the union, which is a huge victory for the organizers.

KELLY: And when you say the union was accusing Amazon of intimidating workers, how so? Can you give more detail?

SELYUKH: There were a variety of accusations. A key one had to do with a mailbox that Amazon had asked the Postal Service to install. The vote on unionization was held by mail because of the pandemic, of course, and Amazon had facilitated this mailbox to be set up right outside the warehouse. And it was under an Amazon-branded tent. The company argued that it was for convenience, but workers testified to federal officials that they felt intimidated. They felt surveilled - regional director has now ruled that that mailbox did create a perception that it was Amazon who controlled the casting of the ballots rather than the federal officials, which was a, quote, "calculated attempt to influence the vote."

KELLY: I do need to note here, Amazon has fended off all unionization efforts in the U.S. so far. Why would this be different?

SELYUKH: That's a huge question. That's kind of what Amazon actually said in a statement today, sort of arguing that unions are not right for its workers. The organizers, of course, are feeling victorious. They're feeling like they're pushing ahead to a new opportunity, a new chance. A few weeks ago, I talked to Perry Connolly, who is one of the pro-union workers at the Bessemer warehouse. He said he felt really positive about the second attempt

PERRY CONNOLLY: Only because a lot of the people that either didn't vote the first time or voted no the first time have said that they made a mistake, and they will vote the second time.

SELYUKH: Amazon is expected to appeal this call for a new election.

KELLY: And what would it mean for Amazon if this union drive succeeds?

SELYUKH: It would mean a huge deal. Unions have long waited for a breakthrough at Amazon. It's now the second largest private employer in the U.S., with almost a million workers. This comes at a time of a big groundswell of union activity. We've seen lots of strikes and walkouts in the past few months. A notable organizing drive is actually happening in upstate New York right now, where Starbucks workers are voting on a union. And at Amazon, the Bessemer facility would become the first unionized warehouse in the United States.

KELLY: In the United States - that's NPR's Alina Selyukh reporting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.