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A look into Amazon’s employee conditions as the company pushes back against unionization

For almost two months, Amazon workers have been voting on whether to unionize at one of the company's major warehouses in Alabama. The voting concludes today. Since Amazon is the second-largest private employer in the country, the stakes are high and the battle is being closely watched. Paul Solman reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For almost two months, Amazon workers have been voting on whether to unionize at one of the company's major warehouses in Alabama. The voting concludes today.

    Since Amazon is the second largest private employer in the country, the stakes are high.

    And, as Paul Solman reports, the battle is being closely watched.

    His story is for our series Making Sense.

  • Steve Greenhouse:

    So, many labor experts are saying this is the most important unionization drive in the United States of America in 10, 20, 30 years.

  • Paul Solman:

    And, says author Steve Greenhouse, who started covering labor for The New York Times back in the '90s, it's Amazon.

  • Steve Greenhouse:

    It's the iconic company of today, and a very vehemently anti-union company.

  • Protester:

    What do we do?

  • Protesters:

    Stand up, fight back!

  • Paul Solman:

    A company now vehemently fighting the drive to unionize Amazon's new warehouse in Bessemer, just outside Birmingham, Alabama, where workers seem more exhausted than vehement.

  • Darryl Richardson:

    Ten, 11 hours a day standing on your feet, just two breaks, it's stressful. It's tiring.

  • Paul Solman:

    Darryl Richardson, one of the warehouse's 5,000-plus workers, is a picker, gathering products for customer orders at the rate of about one every eight to 10 seconds.

  • Darryl Richardson:

    Every time I hit the button, it's just like this, consistent, over and over again. So, I'm standing like this all day.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, you're talking like 4,000 separate packages in a day?

  • Darryl Richardson:

    Yes, sir. Yes sir.

  • Paul Solman:

    Every day?

  • Darryl Richardson:

    Every day.

  • Paul Solman:

    In 2021, fully 75 years after Charlie Chaplin famously lampooned working conditions in industrial America.

    But it's more than just the work that bothers Richardson.

  • Darryl Richardson:

    They don't respect you. You are mistreated. It's just unfair.

  • Paul Solman:

    Unfair how?

  • Jennifer Bates:

    I have seen that happen twice. I have seen a young man get fired for going under the conveyor belt.

  • Paul Solman:

    A safety concern, says Jennifer Bates.

  • Jennifer Bates:

    But there are no signs that say, don't go up under the belt. So, I felt that that was unfair.

  • Paul Solman:

    And when Bates was subjected to a random security check one day:

  • Jennifer Bates:

    You have to empty your pockets, take off your shoes, shake your shoes and be scanned and all that stuff.

    So, as I'm putting my shoes on and put on my vest and stuff back on, so, I ask her, do I get this time back from my break? She said no.

  • Paul Solman:

    Bates and Richardson, recounting one mistreatment after another, are pro-union.

    Amazon never granted our request for an interview, but in written statements elsewhere have said that workers like these are in the minority — quote — "Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire."

    William and Lavonette Stokes, who also work at the warehouse, take the company's side. Hey, starting pay is $15.30 cents an hour, they say. Plus:

  • William Stokes:

    William and Lavonette Stokes, Amazon employee: The benefit package is one of the best you can have. I mean, Amazon pays 95 percent of your college tuition if you choose to go to school.

  • Lavonette Stokes:

    We have great insurance. We have a great working environment. We started out going in knowing that we would have long hours of standing.

  • Paul Solman:

    But standing for 10 hours a day?

  • Lavonette Stokes:

    They iterated over and over again in the training that this is what you would have to do. But now we're here, and not everybody is happy with those conditions.

  • William Stokes:

    It's labor work, but is not labor work that where it's just back-bending, killing you type labor work. You are either packing a box, picking an item, or whatever the case may be.

  • Paul Solman:

    That doesn't exactly square with Richardson's experience, however.

  • Darryl Richardson:

    I'm 51. By 3:00, I can't give no more. I'm finished. Your legs be sore. Feet be sore. And when you go home, the only thing you want to do is lay down and go to sleep.

  • Jennifer Bates:

    Ten hours, I think, is too much to have anybody work for a shift at Amazon. People have fainted, fallen out. I have seen people come out of there in wheelchairs.

  • Paul Solman:

    It's complaints like these that have helped turn the union drive, which began in February, into a national event.

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    The choice to join a union is up to the workers, full stop.

  • Paul Solman:

    Even the president weighed in on Twitter.

  • Joe Biden:

    Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. This is vitally important.

    And there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    Get those ballots in right now.

  • Paul Solman:

    And, on Friday, despite the Alabama tornadoes, Bernie Sanders showed up to rally the troops, taking special aim at Amazon's $180 billion man, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

  • Bernie Sanders:

    And what I say to Mr. Bezos, why, when you have so much money, more than can be spent in a million lifetimes, why are you spending millions trying to defeat an effort on the part of workers here, who want nothing more than decent wages, decent benefits, decent working conditions?

  • Paul Solman:

    And so the struggle, like so many these days, has become partisan. And that's what really bothers the Stokeses, whose counterprotest at a union rally was captured by a local news channel.

  • William Stokes:

    This whole union push is more politically motivated than anything. You know, everybody wants to be the one to so-called slay the giant, to be the first one to get in and everything.

  • Paul Solman:

    The Retail Warehouse and Department Store workers union begs to differ. This is a classic labor struggle, says organizer Josh Brewer.

  • Josh Brewer:

    Amazon really has spent the better part of the last five months with a very sophisticated pressure campaign on their employees.

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    Union organizers are not allowed to set foot on company property, whereas the company can talk to the workers 24/7 with videos, with speeches, with mandatory meetings.

    They send three, four, five anti-union text messages a day. And something I have never, ever seen before in writing about labor for 25, 30 years, they have anti-union posters in the bathroom stalls.

  • Darryl Richardson:

    When you go to the bathroom, who want to look at that?

  • Paul Solman:

    And Amazon made typical anti-union threats, says Richardson.

  • Darryl Richardson:

    You going to lose your wages. You're going to lose your benefits. We are going to shut the company down and move somewhere else.

  • Josh Brewer:

    Oh, what, Amazon's going to run out of Alabama if they get a union. Where are they going to run to? They ran to Alabama to exploit wages and run from unions.

  • Paul Solman:

    On the other hand, if the union wins and bargains for higher wages, it could backfire, says conservative economist Michael Strain.

  • Michael Strain:

    There will be more of an incentive for Amazon to automate if its labor costs go up. And the goal of a union is to increase the labor costs of its employer.

    Unions raise the wages of union workers, which is a good thing. But unions also reduce employment overall by making it more expensive for employers to hire workers.

  • Josh Brewer:

    We said that in the '80s and '90s. Automation, production, this is going to kill jobs. It's another one of the fear tactics that have been used to keep employees from coming together.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, which side is likely to prevail?

    On the one hand, says Steve Greenhouse:

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    It's not easy to win a unionization battle in the South.

  • Paul Solman:

    But on the other:

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    The Bessemer-Birmingham area is an old industrial area. It had steel mills and coal mines and a Pullman railroad plant, and it was heavily unionized. So it really could go either way.

  • Paul Solman:

    What, if any, would be the significance of a union victory in Bessemer, Alabama, against Amazon?

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    It'll be a boon, a huge victory for labor. It will encourage workers at other Amazon fulfillment centers to try to unionize. It will encourage other workers in the South to try to unionize.

  • Paul Solman:

    And if the union loses?

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    It's certainly a blow to the union, but the union will probably say, we will be back to try to win again.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Paul Solman.

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