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Amazon workers in Alabama begin second union vote. Here's how it happened

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A historic union vote at Amazon is getting a do-over starting today. For the second time in less than a year, Amazon workers in Alabama will decide whether they want a union. If they do, it'll be Amazon's first unionized warehouse in the U.S. NPR's Alina Selyukh takes us back to how we got here.

And we'll note that Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The story starts almost as soon as Amazon opened its warehouse outside Birmingham in early 2020.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Amazon is coming to the city of Bessemer.

SELYUKH: Bessemer, a working-class suburb with roots and steel, got a jolt of excitement. Amazon hired thousands of people. Its pay, starting at $15 an hour, was double the local minimum. Darryl Richardson was the first Bessemer worker to call up a union.

DARRYL RICHARDSON: I realized it needed to be some changes.

SELYUKH: He got hired as a picker, a fast-paced job with lots of grabbing and scanning of stuff shoppers order.

RICHARDSON: It's stressful. It's tiring. From the time you walk in the door, you on your feet. You only get two breaks. That's not a way to treat employees when you're working for the richest man in the nation, in the world.

SELYUKH: That's the tension at the heart of Amazon's labor story. One of the most valuable companies has grown to employ 1.1 million workers in the U.S., most of them blue-collar - sorting, packing, bending, lifting and crisscrossing vast, windowless warehouses while a computer counts every minute they spend off task.

RICHARDSON: When I got home, I googled, which union represent Amazon?

SELYUKH: No union does. But Richardson found the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Within months, its organizers got enough worker signatures in Bessemer to petition the government for a union vote, and then got it - the first union election at Amazon in seven years.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Potential turning point in labor relations in the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: One of America's most significant labor battles in decades.

SELYUKH: The moment was ripe for impact. The pandemic put focus on low-wage workers and Amazon's windfall from online shopping. With a union membership at historic lows, organized labor hoped Bessemer would be a catalyst for change. Even President Biden weighed in.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Unions put power in the hands of workers.

SELYUKH: But at the warehouse, many people were just tired. The union vote by mail lasted almost two months. Before it, Amazon ran mandatory classes, arguing a union would simply cost workers money in dues. The company replaced its regular announcements with anti-union messaging, even in bathroom stalls. Some workers worried the warehouse would close if it unionized or, like William Stokes, that the union's promises were unreliable.

WILLIAM STOKES: The union can't promise you 25 to $26 an hour. If they're doing that, that's a lie.

SELYUKH: Almost 5,900 warehouse workers got ballots in that union election. Over half of them voted. Federal officials counted each ballot by hand. The union's loss wasn't close.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: This was a blowout.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Amazon has won enough votes to beat the union effort in Alabama.

SELYUKH: Seventy-one percent of voters rejected unionization. This historic chapter closed. But then another began.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What do we do? Stand up. Fight back. What do we do?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Stand up. Fight back.

SELYUKH: The retail union challenged its loss. It accused Amazon of breaking labor laws, which the company denied. A key controversy was over a mailbox. Amazon had the U.S. Postal Service install one right outside the Bessemer warehouse. Amazon put a corporate tent around it. It was convenient to draw ballots, but pro-union workers, like Jennifer Bates, felt Amazon was surveilling the vote.

JENNIFER BATES: Everybody started texting each other. I don't trust them.

SELYUKH: The National Labor Relations Board held days of hearings. With Democrats now in control, it pursued several Amazon cases. About a month ago, it reached a ground-breaking settlement with Amazon to make it easier for workers there to organize. In Bessemer, the board decided Amazon had tainted the election enough to scrap it. Workers get to vote again. Today, ballots go out to 6,100 Bessemer employees who can vote by mail through late March.

REYN MCGUIRE: I want to get real for any of my co-workers. You deserve everything that you're putting forth into this company that is making billions and going to the moon with.

SELYUKH: Reyn McGuire is among new hires at the warehouse. Since last year's election, almost half the Bessemer workforce has changed. That means a whole new challenge for the union and a whole new series of mandatory classes by Amazon.

Labor experts say union drives of this scale can and often do take multiple attempts if they are to succeed. This year, Bessemer is not alone. Two more Amazon warehouses, both in New York, are also pursuing a union vote.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News. 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.