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Alabama Could Be Home To Amazon's First Unionized Warehouse In The U.S.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Amazon's first unionized warehouse in America - that groundbreaking prospect is playing out in an unlikely place, Alabama. If workers from a facility near Birmingham vote to unionize next month, they would turn a new page, not only for the company but also the region. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Long before the warehouse was even built, local officials called it a game-changer.

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KENNETH GULLEY: Amazon is coming to the city of Bessemer.

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SELYUKH: The city of Bessemer, Ala. - Birmingham's working-class suburb, a shadow of the steel and mining hub it used to be. Amazon jobs paying over double the local minimum wage promised a shot in the arm. Here's Mayor Kenneth Gulley talking about Amazon's arrival on Birmingham CBS 42.

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GULLEY: In the 138-year history of the city of Bessemer, it is the largest single investment.

SELYUKH: But less than a year after the facility opened, it became a different kind of game-changer - Amazon's first American warehouse to get to a union election. Next month, 5,800 workers of the Bessemer warehouse will begin voting on whether to join the retail, wholesale and department store union. Here's President Stuart Appelbaum.

STUART APPELBAUM: The thing that is most important for them is to be treated with respect.

SELYUKH: He says Bessemer workers reached out to the union quietly in the summer, describing grueling productivity quotas, wanting more say in how Amazon staff work, how they get disciplined or fired. A support system mobilized from unionized workers around the region, many from poultry plants. Within months, the union says more than half of the warehouse workers signed cards to petition for unionization, leading the National Labor Relations Board to schedule an election.

APPLEBAUM: I believe that the pandemic opened a lot of people's eyes. They understand now, better than they ever did before, that they need a collective voice to stand up for themselves and to protect themselves.

SELYUKH: Jim Spitzley has wanted that voice for years. He works down the interstate from the Bessemer warehouse at a Mercedes-Benz plant. And he's watching this Amazon vote with interest because his factory was the epicenter of the last high-profile labor battle in Alabama.

JIM SPITZLEY: You know, that's what it all comes down to, is getting that vote. And we haven't got that in 25 years on three attempts.

SELYUKH: They came close in the 2010s when the United Auto Workers Union tried to make inroads at foreign auto plants moving to the American South.

SPITZLEY: They're coming here because of the fact that there is not fear of unions. You know, they're saying that we're just not educated, you know, country bumpkins and whatnot. They don't know nothing about unions and don't care to.

SELYUKH: Anti-union sentiments are common around the region. Alabama and many states around it have right-to-work laws, which mean every worker can choose not to pay union dues. Here's Michael Innis-Jimenez, a professor at the University of Alabama.

MICHAEL INNIS-JIMENEZ: The billboard that I'll never forget - do you want Tuscaloosa to be the next Detroit? You know, let's throw race in there, too, obviously. But, you know, seeing this post-industrial city in a lot of pain and blaming that on the unions.

SELYUKH: Spitzley's plant never got a union election. At several auto plants in the region, workers voted against joining the UAW, even at Volkswagen in Tennessee, where the company welcomed unionization. Now Spitzley wonders if an Amazon union might shake things up.

SPITZLEY: It'll send - not a tsunami ripple, but it's going to send one.

SELYUKH: Of all the Southern states, Innis-Jimenez points out Alabama actually has the highest percentage of unionized workers, and Bessemer specifically has union history. Now it's a community that's predominantly Black. The Amazon union campaign is evoking social and racial justice themes. Union President Appelbaum says in the South, labor and civil rights struggles have often been intertwined.

APPLEBAUM: We have a proud tradition of being involved in the civil rights movement, and we see the effort at Amazon at this warehouse as being a continuation of that.

SELYUKH: Amazon has argued that the workers pushing to unionize do not represent the majority of its staff's views. The company touts its pay and benefits, and it's pushing to delay the election, appealing for the vote to take place in person instead of by mail, despite coronavirus concerns.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

CHANG: And we should note that Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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