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Workers at a New York City Amazon site on Monday appeared to reject a union. That loss came just weeks after they’d scored a historic win at a much larger, neighboring Amazon warehouse, which created the first-ever union at the massive online company. Maximillian Alvarez, of The Real News Network and host of the Working People podcast, joins William Brangham to discuss.
Workers at an Amazon site today in Staten Island, New York, appeared to reject a union by a margin of nearly 2-1.
William Brangham gets the latest on this and larger efforts.
That's right, Judy.
What's known as the Amazon Labor Union lost its unionizing vote today. That loss comes just weeks after they'd scored a historic win at a much larger neighboring Amazon warehouse, which created the first ever union at the massive online company.
Amazon has battled hard with unions, including a recent contested fight in Alabama. But there are now union drives springing up at other major employers as well, including at a number of Starbucks, Apple Stores in REI stores around the country.
For some perspective on all of this, I'm joined by Maximillian Alvarez. He's editor in chief at the Real News Network and host of the "Working People" podcast.
Maximillian, great to have you on the "NewsHour."
Help us understand what went down today, because, as I mentioned, several weeks ago, this tiny union wins a historic victory against Amazon, but then today loses at a much smaller facility. How do you explain that reversal of fortune? How should we see that?
Maximillian Alvarez, Editor in Chief, Real News Network: Well, thank you so much for having me on the show. And thank you for taking an interest in this vital topic. I'm really glad that it's getting the attention it deserves.
I think it's important for us to first remember why it was such a historic victory when the independent Amazon Labor Union successfully voted to unionize at the JFK, a fulfillment center on Staten Island, an 8,000-plus person facility, for — it was a historic for a number of reasons.
One, it is traditionally very, very hard to organize your workplace in this country. After decades of labor law being stacked in favor of the bosses, workers are really up against an uphill battle. Second, they were going up against the second largest private employer in the United States, one of the most powerful companies in the world.
Amazon is an international behemoth that we have no democratic say over whatsoever. So workers were really taking on Goliath there. On top of that, they were building a union while they were doing it. They didn't have an institutional union infrastructure. And so it was really a rank-and-file effort.
And it was that worker-to-worker organizing that allowed them to convince enough people to vote yes for the union and achieve that historic victory last month. But in the month since that happened between these two elections, right, Amazon has a chance to regroup.
Amazon is trying to challenge the National Labor Relations Board and throw out the first election results. At the same time, they are paying union-busting consultants over $400 an hour to tell workers who are making $18, $25 an hour that they don't deserve more. These outside consultants are telling them that the union is an outside party that's going to get in between them and management.
And the other thing is that workers at this second facility are largely part-time. Their main concern is to get more hours, so that they can make ends meet. And so when you're already living that close to the edge, the thought of losing this election, of facing more retaliation may actually scare you more than it did the workers at the first facility.
The other argument that Amazon makes to the workers is, look, we pay you well, we offer benefits, there's no need for a union, that just talk to us directly.
And I know people, I have interviewed people who have gone to Amazon and found good jobs and benefits there. But this movement continues. And Amazon has pushed very hard against the union. As I mentioned, they have also had this big fight in Bessemer, Alabama.
Can you just quickly remind us of what that fight was on the status of that?
I was down in Bessemer this time last year for the Real News Network talking to workers and organizers there. It was a different situation, where workers at another massive fulfillment center, over 5,000 workers, and a deindustrialized majority Black town with twice the national poverty rate in Bessemer, and so Amazon workers were making more than the average Bessemer citizen, but they were still getting chewed up and spit out.
There are people all over this country and all over this world whose bodies have been broken by working at Amazon. And that is part of its business model. On average, Amazon warehouses have a turnover rate of 150 percent. So, a lot of the workers who started a union organizing campaign aren't going to be there by the time that campaign ends.
That was part of what Bessemer workers were fighting against. They held a union election with the RWDSU. They failed the first election, but the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Amazon had illegally tampered with that election. So they got another shot at it. They voted already. The results are kind of in limbo right now because there are a number of challenged ballots that could sway the election one way or the other.
So that's where things currently stand in Bessemer.
Put these Amazon fights into context with the national labor movement.
As I mentioned, we're seeing other sprouts of organizing, at Starbucks, at Apple Stores, at REI, places that have not traditionally had much union penetration. Is this an actual sea change going on in the labor movement or something else?
I do think that — and what I'm hearing from workers as I have talked to them for the Real News and my show "Working People" all the time is, there is a rising labor consciousness.
People know they have been getting screwed over for a long time. Workers for the past 40 years have been more productive than they have ever been, yet workers' wages have largely stagnated over that period, while the 1 percent is pocketing all of that extra generated revenue, right?
So — and cost of living keeps going up. We're in an inflation squeeze right now. And then we also hit a pandemic, where it was made very clear that workers were going to be paraded as essential as a sort of P.R. tactic, but they got no say over their safety conditions.
And people are rebelling against that, whether that is quitting their jobs in record numbers, what we're calling the Great Resignation, whether that is like massive historic unionization efforts at places like Starbucks and Amazon, whether that is unions that already exist getting more militant and hitting the picket line, like Kellogg's, like in academia, so on and so forth.
So I think there are a number of reasons why people are standing up, but I do think that they're looking at each other, and they are building on the successes of each other, and they're learning from the failures. And that is what I think makes this more of a movement than just kind of random pockets of activity happening simultaneously.
The podcast is "Working People" podcast. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me.
And thank you, William.
And one more note: Amazon turned down our request for an interview on the elections and the criticism, but a company spokeswoman said in a statement — quote — "We're glad that our team at LDJ5" — that's the Staten Island warehouse — "were able to have their voices heard. We look forward to continuing to work directly together as we strive to make every day better for our employees."
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
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