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Snippet of The Daily: The Push to Unionize at Amazon

From Audio: A Union Drive at Amazon

Duration: 08:46
Since its earliest days, Amazon has been anti-union, successfully quashing any attempt by workers to organize. A group of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., just might change that — depending on the outcome of a vote this week.
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Since its earliest days, Amazon has been anti-union, successfully quashing any attempt by workers to organize. A group of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., just might change that — depending on the outcome of a vote this week.
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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 Frankel spoke with business reporter Michael Corkery about the most closely watched labor battle in the country. Yeah, mhm. Thursday, April 1st. Yeah, Michael, when did you first hear about the plan to unionize and 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 him 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, Okay, 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 to. But when I and my colleague Karen Weise 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 attraction than just about anybody had expected. So talk about this point in the summer, 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 forth this day that they were going to build a fulfillment center there. Amazon is coming to the city of Destiny. It was a big win for Best Summer, 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. Best is an old industrial area. It lost a lot of jobs when some factories closed down. When Amazon opens here in 2020. It will definitely solidify best summer as a comeback town. So a warehouse like this in a big employer like Amazon, this was a big, big deal for best Summer. Amazon's fulfillment Center will bring 1500 jobs that pay at least $15 an hour to start free health insurance and tuition reimbursement up to $3000 a year. The minimum wage in Alabama is $7.25 an hour. So for Amazon to be offering a starting pay of $15 an hour is a really attractive prospect for people living in this area. When Amazon come to town, I feel like you gotta be more opportunities is it's amazing to have so many things kind of here to this. 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. Um, 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. Yeah. So you do. You do, Obviously. I mean, everybody knows Amazon, but Jennifer is 49 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, they got the big smile out there. Nice building, and I'm smiling. Okay, I'm going to work for Amazon. And she goes into this warehouse and is immediately struck by just how big it is, How physically vast spaces. 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. It's massive, So I'm wondering what exactly is her job there? What is she doing? So 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 White House, she's doing really well at it. I was excited because, you know, my hands are on somebody's package or my hands 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 at this. So and then pretty quickly she gets promoted. They said, I want we want to train you on 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 a conveyor. We're standing on the line, waiting on the boxes to come by, so we have to pull the boxes from the conveyor. You scan them, open them, and then dump them in, uh, totes 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 such such welcome to Amazon. We need you to download this app. This app is called the HZ app. So if 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 in 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, you're an 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'll 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 anytime you're not doing that, um, 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 to send pause away, they still consider it not working. You're walking away to push. You have time off task. If you go to the restroom, you have time off task. So the company is counting her actual minutes. It's counting your actual seconds
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