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Some Capitol Hill Lawmakers Back Amazon Workers' Attempt To Unionize

NOEL KING, HOST:

Nearly 6,000 Amazon employees who work at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., are voting by mail on whether to unionize. If they do, this would be the first union Amazon facility in this country. Here's Jennifer Bates, who works there.

JENNIFER BATES: I keep butterflies. And butterflies normally come to calm me, but this is - my stomach stays full. It seems like it's getting bigger and bigger - full of butterflies - because it's nerve-wracking to think, I don't know how it's going to go.

KING: Nerve-wracking. The election ends later this month. And I should mention that Amazon is a financial supporter of NPR, but we cover them like any other company. Some lawmakers support the union, including Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, and, of course, President Biden - also Michigan Congressman Andy Levin. Earlier this month, he and a group of Democrats traveled to Bessemer. Good morning, Congressman.

ANDY LEVIN: Good morning, Noel. How are you?

KING: Good, thanks. What did Amazon employees there tell you about why they want to unionize?

LEVIN: Well, you know, union elections so often are about basic dignity, and that was really true here. I was shocked to learn what it's really like in there. They work in a facility that's like 14 football fields, and it can take 10 minutes to walk to a break room. They have two half-hour breaks in a 10-hour shift, so they might get effectively 10 minutes to eat lunch by the time they walk there and back. A lot of them don't feel like they can go to the bathroom except on their break. And they're watched and quantified every second. They're monitored visually, listening, geopositioning. And every second they're not on task is measured. And if they have a certain number of minutes off-task in a week, they could be fired. Sometimes, there might not even be a person involved. It was really kind of dehumanizing to me.

KING: Here is the argument that Amazon makes. Amazon says, look; our employees earn $15 an hour, which is a good wage in a place like Bessemer, Ala. Some of them have health benefits, 401(k)s. Essentially, they have got the benefits that a union would get them. They don't need a union. What do you make of that argument?

LEVIN: I'd like to tell that argument to any National Football League player, any actor in a movie, any presenter on major television or radio networks, all of whom have a union - every single one. The idea that unions are only for people who are the most poorly paid, it's ridiculous. The one person who's unionized at every airline is the pilot. So this argument is ridiculous.

These workers deserve a seat at the table to discuss a safe workplace during a pandemic. They deserve a seat at the table to have a workplace that's human and that a real person can go to and, great, make $15 an hour. Amazon should pay them a lot more. The owner of the company, the main owner, had his wealth increase $78 billion during a pandemic, and they're bragging...

KING: Jeff Bezos.

LEVIN: ...About pay - Jeff Bezos - and they're bragging about paying people $15 an hour. What's wrong with workers having their own organization just so that they can have input in their work lives? And that's all these people are seeking is a seat at the table.

KING: During this trip to Alabama that you went on, your colleague, Congressman Jamaal Bowman, said, this doesn't stop with Amazon. He mentioned Lyft, Uber, Tesla and Walmart as well. What is the ultimate goal here?

LEVIN: The goal is for workers to be able to form a union and bargain collectively if they darn well please. Noel, we're down to 6% of private sector workers in this country needing a union. We're going to pass the PRO Act in the Congress, and the president is going to help lead us into a new era when workers can have a say at the table. It's long past time in this country.

KING: Michigan Congressman Andy Levin, thank you.

LEVIN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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