Well, it's almost over, I guess. Yeah, just a few more days. Yes, it is.
And I think the butterflies thing that they're getting worse or they're or they're getting they're starting to calm down now.
They're getting worse because it seems like my stomach is filling up more with butterflies.
I mean, I can imagine. I can imagine. From The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today, when a small group of workers in Bessemer, Alabama, tried to create a union inside an Amazon fulfillment center, they took on the most powerful company in retail.
In the coming days, they'll find out whether they or Amazon have prevailed.
My colleague Shira Frenkel spoke with business reporter Michael Corkery about the most closely watched labor battle in the country.
It's Thursday, April 1st. Michael, when did you first hear about the plan to unionize an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama? I first heard about this plan probably mid to early September. I kind of stumbled upon it. I was talking to some labor organizers for another story, and one of them mentioned that there was this effort underway to organize this warehouse down there. And, you know, I chatted with them a little bit. It sounded like it was very early.
They had started a website for workers to check out. I checked out the website, but at that point, knowing what I know about Amazon, I thought, OK, good luck with that.
Wait, tell me what you mean when you said knowing what you know.
Well, Amazon is one of the most powerful companies in the world, and it's also historically been very anti-union. The company is successfully beat back other attempts to unionize warehouses, a customer call center. They have kept unions out for years. And I felt like they would probably be successful in beating this one back, too. But when I and my colleague Karen Wise check back in in the late fall and early winter on what was going on in Bessemer, it appeared that the unionization effort had gotten much more traction than just about anybody had expected.
So talk about this plant in Bessemer. So about two years ago.
It is my pleasure to welcome all of you here. Amazon announced with great fanfare, we want to thank God.
And so for this day that they were going to build a fulfillment center.
Their Amazon is coming to the city of Baltimore. And it was a big win for Bessemer, which is a small city about 20 miles outside of Birmingham.
Amazon represents a bright future for a city that's had its share of financial struggles, is an old industrial area. It lost a lot of jobs when some factories closed down. When Amazon opens here in twenty twenty, it will definitely solidify Bessemer as a comeback town. So a warehouse like this in a big employer like Amazon. This was a big, big deal for Bessemer.
Amazon's fulfillment center will bring 1500 jobs that pay at least fifteen dollars an hour to start free health insurance and tuition reimbursement, up to three thousand dollars a year.
The minimum wage in Alabama is seven dollars and twenty five cents an hour. So for Amazon to be offering a starting pay of fifteen dollars an hour is a really attractive prospect for people living in this area. With Amazon coming, there may be more opportunities.
It's amazing to have so many things happening here that if you add on the benefits that Amazon offers and a lot of people want to work at Amazon. Jennifer, thank you officially for for doing this. Thank you. And one of those people who wanted to work there was Jennifer Bates. Do you do you shop there yourself? I mean, you. Absolutely, yes.
So you do. You do, obviously. I mean, everybody knows Amazon, but I mean, Jennifer is forty nine years old. She lives in Birmingham. She's pretty typical of a lot of people working in that area. She's worked in a lot of the big industries in and around Birmingham, manufacturing, food service, agriculture. But she's ready for something new. And Amazon's pay and benefits appeal to her. So she applies and she gets the job.
So what did she think working at Amazon was going to be like? I think at first she was excited when I parked out front to get the big smile at their nice building.
And I'm smiling like a one word grandmother.
And she goes into this warehouse and is immediately struck by just how big it is, how physically vast this space is.
It's a huge place. Football fields huge. It's a lot of walking to me. It's like miles and miles of walking.
How fast are we talking here? So this fulfillment center, like most of Amazon's fulfillment centers, is close to a million square feet, which is the equivalent of 15 football fields. Wow.
It's massive. So I'm wondering, what exactly is her job there? What is she doing to Jennifer's job is to take products that are coming into the warehouse, scan them, put them into containers, and then those containers are used to sort the products and put them in the boxes that will end up going to your house in my house. And at this first job that she got at the warehouse, she's doing really well at it.
I was excited because, you know, my hands are on somebody's package or my hands is on somebody's product and they're getting ready to get it. So my numbers were good, you know, because I have a good work ethic.
So and then pretty quickly, she gets promoted.
They said, I want we want to try and do something else. You've done a wonderful job here.
So now she's scanning the merchandise as it's coming off the delivery trucks.
All the boxes come down the conveyor. We're standing on the line, waiting on the boxes to come back. So we have to pull the boxes from the conveyor to scan them, open them, and then dump them in total and push them on another conveyor that goes to the store department where I just came from.
At first it's fine, but pretty quickly, the reality of this place starts to set in. What do you mean? Well, she starts to bristle at how the managers are monitoring and constantly surveilling what she and the other workers are doing. And a lot of that frustration has to do with how they're doing that they required her and the other workers when she started to download an app on her first day, the first thing they tell you, hello, this is that says, welcome to Amazon.
We need you to download this app.
This app is called the A to Z app. So you give them access to everything they know if you're there or not.
There's also various computers around the warehouse that she has to log into one when she first gets to the building and then one at her workstation that are constantly monitoring whether she's there or not.
When you log into the computer and you scan your badge, your arm, so it gives your manager a notification wherever they are that you're there.
And the way it works is that this app and a series of other computers gives the company a very, very fine grained level of information about what the workers are doing at every moment of the day. And one of the things they meticulously track is something called time off task.
Time off task is time that you're not working. And they tell you you have to keep scanning. And that way we know that you're working. Time off task is a measurement of the time a worker spends away from their primary task. In Jennifer's case, it's scanning items. So any time you're not doing that, whether you need to go to the bathroom, whether you need to wash your hands, whether you need to take a personal phone call, all that time is considered time away from your task.
And it's being tracked and counted and accumulating wherever you are, whatever you're doing.
If you're not scanning, then they say you're not working. Even if you're pushing a button as simple as the way they still consider it not working.
You walk in a way to push. You have time off tested. You go to the restroom, you have time of death.
So the company is counting her actual minutes. It's counting your actual seconds.
And she. Finds out that workers in the warehouse are only allowed so much time off task before they can run into problems and face discipline if they spend too much time away from the thing that they're supposed to be doing most of the day. Now, Amazon says people are absolutely allowed to take bathroom breaks in addition to their normal breaks during the day. They're absolutely allowed to wash their hands as much as they need to, especially during the pandemic, and they will not be penalized.
The company also says that this is not meant to penalize workers on a Short-Term basis. All these metrics are being looked at over the long term. And this time, often this idea is really meant to be used to protect a company from workers that would, you know, clock in and then disappear the whole day and go out to lunch and then come back at the end of the day, do no work. And I, along with my colleagues, have talked to dozens of workers in Bessemer and across the company, and many of them actually don't mind time off task.
They think it kind of levels the playing field. If you're hard working and you are diligent, you want to be tracked, you want your work to be recognized, and it protects those workers against workers that might be taking too long in the bathroom or gossiping or kind of slacking off. So not everybody is against this idea or this technology. But Jennifer and others do feel afraid of being penalized and the possibility of being punished if they accumulate too much of this.
And again, it's just the constant monitoring that goes on every minute of the day.
I've seen them come take them out of the line. You've racked up too much. What do you mean? Nobody told me anything about time of death because they don't tell you that, hey, you only got this amount of time off to a day. No one ever knew that it was a thing until you started to get people started getting written up about it or getting fired up about it. And to this day, no one even knows what is the maximum time off to ask.
Now, is that written in given tools and management have given it to us? We don't have that.
I've talked to a lot of other Amazon workers that are also confused by how the time off tax policies work. Even Amazon, when I've asked them about it, their answers tend to be ambiguous. And it's just led to a great deal of confusion and fear for some workers like Jennifer about how this works. I'm wondering how does that start to affect her?
That feeling of being monitored, of being watched, it really starts to wear on her is not just physically if it's a mental strain on you know, I feel I'm speaking for myself, but mentally you have to think about even if I can go to the bathroom, I almost use the bathroom all myself trying to wait to break time so I won't have time.
I'll take you have to mentally think I'm tired. Do I take the chance to walk way up there to give me something to eat or should I just sit here and rest, take the whole thirty minutes? I have to rest because it take you about ten minutes. They're ten minutes back. You really don't have but ten or fifteen minutes for break. And if you and God forbid you go you working upstairs, you have to walk those stairs. I mean when I first start I have to stop on the second stairway just to riff.
And what's even more frustrating for Jennifer is that she feels like when she has questions or issues that she needs to deal with in real time, she can't just do it by talking to a manager. She feels that many of those managers are unapproachable or there's no real opportunity to do so.
We don't hear from my managers. There's no radio for us to call anybody when we have an issue.
What's more, she's frustrated that the company in her mind seems to be pushing her to have those interactions and to get those answers through technology, rather, through in-person conversations.
It was a one way conversation. So that made me feel that my voice wasn't important and she's not alone.
I've talked to some other workers who also find their relationships with their managers to be lacking and communication to be challenged. There's some workers who don't even know who their managers are on a given day, and the company allows them to look it up on the app to find out. But just that idea alone means that if they have to look it up on their phone, I mean, how meaningful can that real relationship be between the worker and manager?
People were so angry that they would never come to see what our issues were, but instead they would dictate to us on a computer about what we're not doing and what we need to be doing without asking us what our issues were.
Now, the. He says there is plenty of managers around that you can talk to and interface with on the warehouse floor. Some workers say actually the app is a great way to communicate what you need to communicate. It's efficient. It's quick. So some people really like the app. But for Jennifer, the ambiguity around many of these rules that feel to her very consequential is really unnerving. And on top of that ambiguity, she feels like she can't talk about them or try to understand them by having conversations face to face with managers at the warehouse.
So all that adds up to making her feel like she's this cog in this big machine and she has no real clear understanding or say in how that machine works. And there's a specific example.
She told me about the fire that sent me to go get a call. The test I said I've had a couple times before, but go anyway. They took me off the machine. What does that say?
They can say that I had time off task when I had to take time off task to go across to another part of the warehouse that it's so big it takes a lot of time to do that. And when she got there, when I went up there, they said they were closed.
They don't want they won't be back at one o'clock. So I had to walk way back and tell her that they are not up there. So what happens? I had time off to ask, but who's going to feel that time? And to say she was doing this is up to the manager.
And yet there's no manager around. She says that I can hear her out and tell her not to worry about it. Those interactions don't, according to her, seem to take place for a lot of us is anger.
It is anger because we feel like it's unfair. It's an imbalance in the imbalance is not in our favor at all. Right now we're way a mask for the pandemic. But I feel like working there, even without the pandemic, we're still wearing masks because even if we voice our opinion, it's just like they don't even hear us. So is there a breaking point for Jennifer? Yes, there was. Mm hmm.
When I walked out, I've often seen the security lights go off. And I remember Amazon sending us a text message or email telling us that they're going to be doing random checks, but this particular day it happened to me. So security says, scan your badge and go around the corner. OK, now we're going to break, you know, trying to rush out to break.
But you stop me. So I go in, go around the corner. She said, empty your pockets, take off your shoes, empty your shoes, shake them. Had to take off from a base, go through this scanner thing. You know, they want to make sure you don't have anything you're not stealing. So I asked the question. I said, do I get my time back for my break? She said, no. That's are you kidding me?
So you're telling me that the time I spent back here, I don't get that a lot of it back. So that I can start my break. She said, no, I said that's not fair. She said, I know it. But after that happened, I was furious about it. I really was.
And so that was the breaking point. Now, Amazon says these searches, which are routine, only take a minute or less. But for Jennifer, that's that wasn't the point. It was the principle of the matter that this company that closely tracks every minute, every second of her workday, this is the same Amazon that wouldn't give her her minute back the minute that they cause her to lose from her break. And that was just a bridge too far for her.
And Jennifer thought, I've got to do something about this. We'll be right back. This podcast is supported by Facebook. It's been 25 years since lawmakers passed comprehensive Internet regulations, but the Internet has changed a lot since then. And it's time for an update. That's why Facebook supports updated Internet regulations to set clear guidelines for addressing today's toughest challenges, like protecting privacy. Fighting misinformation. Reforming Section 230 and more. See their progress on key issues. And what's next at about Fab.com slash regulations.
OK, Michael, so what happens when Jennifer decides that things at the warehouse have to change?
Well, it turns out she was not alone, so me and one of my other co-workers were sitting across each other at a table and he was like, man, it's ridiculous the way they keep all our time, the way they keep doing this. You know, man, I'm tired. You know, I really want to quit. And he said, you know, we had a union. They wouldn't be doing that crap.
You know, there was some talk out on breaks informal about what if they formed a union here in the chatter or outside that started the conversation.
But at this point, it's less than a dozen workers and they really have no idea how to go about forming a union.
No one knew who to call. None of us knew who to call. We were just compensating.
So one of them did. But all of us do. And we need to find out something.
He goes to the Internet, I think he said he typed in a union who can represent Amazon. He Google that you Googled it.
And the retail warehouse and department store union comes up.
That's who who popped up. They had made the last serious attempt at unionizing at Amazon Warehouse, actually, in Staten Island. So he calls them and tells them that there's some workers in Bessemer that are interested in forming a union and the union agrees to meet with the workers.
It was at the Hotel Holiday Inn in Bethlehem. You met at a hotel? Yes. It was like right across the street from Amazigh here. We were like looking around Vegas. You have the Bible over here to see us. Yeah. Wow.
It's very secretive. Yeah. Yeah. It was scary to you all the way.
Was it would it was it was just scary because, you know, we didn't know what the Amazon would track our phones, you know that. We don't know whether they had been hearing the chatter. You know, we didn't know who we could trust.
So they spent a couple of hours talking and the union says, yeah, these are these are legitimate issues and we can help you put an organizing drive together. How did you feel? Were you excited? Intimidated early on?
We were kind of nervous, but we were excited at the same time that we got some help. We did not know which direction it was going. It was going in. So we were just. I am a facility in Bessemer, Alabama, and we're going to try to get our union, so they need to just spread the word in the warehouse about what they were up to. And the best way to do that is to do that through word of mouth.
We're on our way up to break. You know, I would throw a little pitch out there, you know, what do you think about unionizing?
Then starts to formalized on October 20th when some union organizers show up at the Amazon warehouse. And as the Amazon workers are leaving the facility to go home, the organizers start handing out these little cards that basically say, are you interested or are you not interested in forming a union?
And when these cards come back, there is way more interest in unionizing than just about anybody expected. In order to have a formal union election, you need 30 percent of a facility to be interested in forming a union. And at the best of a warehouse, there's five thousand eight hundred workers. Three thousand of those workers turned in cards that said they were interested. That's a lot like that was a lot of interest. Yeah, way more than 30 percent needed.
But pretty quickly, Amazon starts to push back. What do you mean? Well, from Jennifer's perspective, workers started getting all these reminders about limiting contact with each other.
They sent memos out for us to not even on our breaks off the clock, six feet. They want us to remain six feet apart in a parking lot. Don't go to no one's vehicles.
That may be seen as just reminders of the pandemic. Still going still need to be careful. But Jennifer thought the timing was suspicious.
They got to the point where they start making us walk in a straight line. No one in the front and one back. So, you know, you're safe. So therefore, you can look and walk in on your breaks. You keep us from talking and looking and talking with each other.
And another thing that people were suspicious about concerns this stoplight. As workers are leaving the facility every night to go home, they have to stop at this stoplight. And that's what organizers would approach them and start talking to them about the union. But in December, the height of the organizing effort, the timing of the stoplight changes and cars are moved quicker out of the warehouse gate. So it was giving the organizers less time to talk to them. Now, Amazon is all across the country.
There's issues with how long it takes to get out of parking lots. And, you know, workers have complained and have asked to change the timing of lights. But we looked into this and it turned out, yes, Amazon actually requested to make the red lights shorter. Wow. Then inside the warehouse, the company is also taking some pretty aggressive anti-union actions under the guidance of anti-union consultants, which Amazon has hired for three thousand dollars a day. Amazon starts doing things like posting messages all across the warehouse, even in the bathroom stalls, saying why the workers shouldn't join unions.
They're sending people blast texts on their personal cell phones. They're also having mandatory meetings where the staff has to come and listen to detailed presentations about why unions are a bad idea. He said, you know, what do you think the unions come from?
There are a group of people who come to stay human and they are brought people and they if they see this million dollar company and they want to find a way to give you your heart, our money, they take their money and go on lavish vacations and buy nice cars. He said, you're going to lose five hundred dollars of your hard earned money for something that you already have for free. We're giving you a competitive wage and we're giving you good benefits.
So why pay somebody five hundred dollars for something you already got? You can speak for yourself.
So what Amazon was telling the workers was that why should they pay hundreds of dollars every year to a union to represent them at a company that's already paying them really good wages and providing excellent benefits? And it's not just a company that feels that way among the dozens of workers that I and my colleagues have talked to in Bessemer and across Amazon. They think it's a really good job that they have and like both union supporters and those that don't support the union.
All agree that, you know, there's lots of surveillance and, you know, their work is being monitored, but some workers find it oppressive and others find it totally acceptable, what people want out of working at Amazon really varies widely.
OK, well, to that point, I'm curious what Jennifer actually wants to get out of this.
What does she want to see happen if she's successful at unionizing?
I think there are a few things that she sees a union accomplishing. One, they could help clarify rules, things around time off task, make it very specific, write it down. What are the rules? What does it take to get fired? Everybody knows. It's very clear. There's no questions. Second thing, Jennifer believes that the unions would give a place where, you know, if you do get in trouble, you would have a venue to air your issues and could be fairly represented and that there would be evidence aired on either side on what led to that moment.
But I think for Jennifer, there's something also deeper about what she feels a union could do. And I think that has to do with giving her a voice and giving workers a voice and making them feel more empowered and more equal in the eyes of the company. Why a union like what did you think the union could do given its dignity and respect?
Understanding that we deserve our bodies, deserve to take a risk to take a break and not to be ignored when we're talking to you, to allow them to sit at the table to hear the issues that we're having as employees because we didn't feel like we were employees, we felt like we were slaves, really not being able to talk to the people who over us. So it was like a suppression.
She's likening it to slavery. Wow. Which is a really strong statement. And I think it speaks to just how emotional this whole experience has been for her and for many other workers.
Maybe this is an obvious question, but why are they so staunchly anti-union?
I mean, if they see themselves as a progressive company, why hold out on some of the issues that Jennifer and the other union activists are asking for? It's a good question. Many people follow the company closely, say it's about the control that Amazon has now over its workforce. It's an incredibly efficient system that executes what it promises almost better than any company on Earth that it can get us goods as quickly as we want them. And to have to have a union sort of standing in the middle of that, that that could mean changing some of those systems.
And Amazon has great ambitions. It got really big during the pandemic. It has ambitions to get even bigger both in the US and around the world. And so if a labor union starts in Bessemer, it could be the beginning of other organizing at Amazon's facilities across the United States. And that would be hugely disruptive to the Amazon way. Right. So this is way bigger than what's happening. Just one plant in Bessemer.
Yes. And that's why you see all these other people getting involved in this fight to Mr. Bezos.
Why are you doing everything in your power to stop your workers and Bessemer, Alabama, from joining a union?
Politicians like Bernie Sanders came out very early in support of the workers in Bessemer.
Only natural that you work in the workplace. If you put energy into not only empowering yourself within the workplace.
Danny Glover came to the warehouse gates to stand with the organizers to show his support apologia for, you know, trying to unionize football players, actors, actresses, workers have support from Hollywood celebrities like Tina Fey.
And then I've long said America wasn't built by Wall Street. Last month, this huge thing happened.
It was built by the middle class and unions built the middle class. Joe Biden put out a video statement 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, in which he says that unions are vital to building the middle class in America.
The choice to join a union.
Is up to the workers.
Full stop, and he warned companies without saying the name Amazon, there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.
They should not stand in the way. God bless you all. And may God protect the workers and their families who are trying to figure out how to make it make it fairly. Thank you. Once I saw that, I said, OK, the man you know, OK, now, the man you know, the man is that he has spoken out. So it was really shocking. And I was like, yes, yes.
So think back to where this started. Just a handful of workers decided to form a union in Alabama. And now the president of United States is putting out a public statement and they're not alone in thinking this was like a big deal. Even labor historians had never seen a sitting president in recent memory make such a strong statement supporting unionization.
So it's no longer a symbol. David versus Goliath. It's David and his really powerful allies against Goliath at this point. Does Amazon start to bend to the public pressure at all?
No, just the opposite. I mean, throughout most of this, Amazon has played pretty coy, pretty politely in its responses. It's been very firm in saying we don't believe there should be a union, but it's all done very politely. But in the past couple of weeks, finally, as the voting gears up and it's actually starting to take place at the end of March and workers are casting their ballots. Amazon has just taken the gloves off and its executives have taken to Twitter and really taken on politicians like Bernie Sanders.
There is just one tweet exchange a few days ago where Bernie had come to Alabama in support of the workers. And an Amazon executive really zinged him saying, well, we're basically more progressive than you, Senator Sanders. We pay fifteen dollars an hour. And that's only that's something you're trying to get in Congress and have failed to do. And, you know, it really speaks to some of this frustration. I think the company feels like in that it believes it is truly a progressive workplace and that it has been sort of mischaracterized by the union and its supporters as not a good place to work, that this is wrong.
We are a good place to work. We are a better place to work than most.
What do you think it'll mean if the workers in Bessemer decide that they ultimately don't want a union?
I think I think it would be a very stinging defeat, not just for this union, but for labor generally if they lose. I mean, they had they had the president, United States weighing in basically on their behalf and on top of the political sport. You also I mean, we're just coming out of still in the pandemic at a time when the plight of the low wage worker who while many white collar workers were able to work from home, essential workers like Amazon warehouse workers had to keep coming to work.
And there's great public support for that. There was great political support for that. And if a union is unable to capitalize on that and use that to help organize these workers, if not now, it's hard to think about when that might happen again. Like like as good of a chance as any was was now in Bessemer, Alabama. And what about Jennifer, how do you think she's going to feel if when the votes are tallied, they've fallen short?
I think she'd be very disappointed just given all the effort. But I think, you know, after the initial disappointment, I think she'd still feel like she was able to effect some change.
We've already succeeded. I feel like we've already succeeded. Whatever happens with the vote, the bill has been wrong and it's not stopping.
She in no small way has affected the conversation about the nature of work in a savvy, growing, successful company like Amazon. And I think she would feel good about that. Thank you, Michael. Thank you. The voting period for Amazon workers seeking to form a union in December has now ended and a final tally is expected to be announced in the next few days. We'll be right back. Does it ever seem like there's never enough time to get everything done, then Fidelity has some good news.
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The firefighter, Genevieve Hansen, grew emotional as she recalled watching Floyd struggle to breathe just feet away from her as she kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes when you couldn't do that.
How did that make you feel? Totally distressed and frustrated. Yes, today's episode was produced by Alix Spiegel, Rachel Quester, Robert Jimerson and Daniel Guimet with help from Luke Vanderbilt. It was edited by Page Kowit and engineered by Dan Powell. That's it for the daily inlike Obama. See tomorrow. Dana Farber, Cancer Institute notes that by asking the right question, you could get an answer you never imagined, like Dr. William G. Kaylan Jr., who won the Nobel Prize for a question that showed how cancer cells hijacked the body's systems to get the oxygen they need.
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