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    Amazon Workers Defeat Union Effort in Alabama

    The company’s decisive victory deals a crushing blow to organized labor, which had hoped the time was ripe to start making inroads.Amazon workers at a giant warehouse in Alabama voted decisively against forming a union on Friday, squashing the most significant organizing drive in the internet giant’s history and dealing a crushing blow to labor and Democrats when conditions appeared ripe for them to make advances.Workers cast 1,798 votes against a union, giving Amazon enough to emphatically defeat the effort. Ballots in favor of a union trailed at 738, fewer than 30 percent of the votes tallied, according to federal officials.The lopsided outcome at the 6,000-person warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., came even as the pandemic’s effect on the economy and the election of a pro-labor president had made the country more aware of the plight of essential workers.Amazon, which has repeatedly quashed labor activism, had appeared vulnerable as it faced increasing scrutiny in Washington and around the world for its market power and influence. President Biden signaled support for the union effort, as did Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent. The pandemic, which drove millions of people to shop online, also raised questions about Amazon’s ability to keep those employees safe.But in an aggressive campaign, the company argued that its workers had access to rewarding jobs without needing to involve a union. The victory leaves Amazon free to handle employees on its own terms as it has gone on a hiring spree and expanded its work force to more than 1.3 million people.Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who researches the history of technology companies, said Amazon’s message that it offered good jobs with good wages had prevailed over the criticisms by the union and its supporters. The outcome, she said, “reads as a vindication.”She added that while it was just one warehouse, the election had garnered so much attention that it had become a “bellwether.” Amazon’s victory was likely to cause organized labor to think, “Maybe this isn’t worth trying in other places,” Ms. O’Mara said.The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which led the drive, blamed its defeat on what it said were Amazon’s anti-union tactics before and during the voting, which was conducted from early February through the end of last month. The union said it would challenge the result and ask federal labor officials to investigate Amazon for creating an “atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals.”“Our system is broken,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president. “Amazon took full advantage of that.”Amazon said in a statement, “The union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true.” It added, “Amazon didn’t win — our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”About half of the 5,876 eligible voters at the warehouse cast ballots in the election. A majority of votes, or 1,521, was needed to win. About 500 ballots were contested, largely by Amazon, the union said. Those ballots were not counted. If a union had been voted through, it would have been the first for Amazon workers in the United States. More

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    What is Going on with China, Cotton and All of These Clothing Brands?

    A user’s guide to the latest cross-border social media fashion crisis.Last week, calls for the cancellation of H&M and other Western brands went out across Chinese social media as human rights campaigns collided with cotton sourcing and political gamesmanship. Here’s what you need to know about what’s going on and how it may affect everything from your T-shirts to your trench coats.What’s all this I’m hearing about fashion brands and China? Did someone make another dumb racist ad?No, it’s much more complicated than an offensive and obvious cultural faux pas. The issue centers on the Xinjiang region of China and allegations of forced labor in the cotton industry — allegations denied by the Chinese government. Last summer, many Western brands issued statements expressing concerns about human rights in their supply chain. Some even cut ties with the region all together.Now, months later, the chickens are coming home to roost: Chinese netizens are reacting with fury, charging the allegations are an offense to the state. Leading Chinese e-commerce platforms have kicked major international labels off their sites, and a slew of celebrities have denounced their former foreign employers.Why is this such a big deal?The issue has growing political and economic implications. On the one hand, as the pandemic continues to roil global retail, consumers have become more attuned to who makes their clothes and how they are treated, putting pressure on brands to put their values where their products are. One the other, China has become an evermore important sales hub to the fashion industry, given its scale and the fact that there is less disruption there than in other key markets, like Europe. Then, too, international politicians are getting in on the act, imposing bans and sanctions. Fashion has become a diplomatic football.This is a perfect case study of what happens when market imperatives come up against global morality.Tell me more about Xinjiang and why it is so important.Xinjiang is a region in northwest China that happens to produce about a fifth of the world’s cotton. It is home to many ethnic groups, especially the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority. Though it is officially the largest of China’s five autonomous regions, which in theory means it has more legislative self-control, the central government has been increasingly involved in the area, saying it must exert its authority because of local conflicts with the Han Chinese (the ethnic majority) who have been moving into the region. This has resulted in draconian restrictions, surveillance, criminal prosecutions and forced-labor camps.OK, and what about the Uyghurs?A predominantly Muslim Turkic group, the Uyghur population within Xinjiang numbers just over 12 million, according to official figures released by Chinese authorities. As many as one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been retrained to become model workers, obedient to the Chinese Communist Party via coercive labor programs.Burberry created signature check “skins” for characters in the Honor of Kings video game, which its owner, the Chinese technology company Tencent, removed over the company’s stand on cotton produced in the Xinjiang region.via Honor of KingsSo this has been going on for awhile?At least since 2016. But after The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Axios and others published reports that connected Uyghurs in forced detention to the supply chains of many of the world’s best-known fashion retailers, including Adidas, Lacoste, H&M, Ralph Lauren and the PVH Corporation, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, many of those brands reassessed their relationships with Xinjiang-based cotton suppliers.In January, the Trump administration banned all imports of cotton from the region, as well as products made from the material and declared what was happening “genocide.” At the time, the Workers Rights Consortium estimated that material from Xinjiang was involved in more than 1.5 billion garments imported annually by American brands and retailers.That’s a lot! How do I know if I am wearing a garment made from Xinjiang cotton?You don’t. The supply chain is so convoluted and subcontracting so common that often it’s hard for brands themselves to know exactly where and how every component of their garments is made.So if this has been an issue for over a year, why is everyone in China freaking out now?It isn’t immediately clear. One theory is that it is because of the ramp-up in political brinkmanship between China and the West. On March 22, Britain, Canada, the European Union and the United States announced sanctions on Chinese officials in an escalating row over the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.Not long after, screenshots from a statement posted in September 2020 by H&M citing “deep concerns” about reports of forced labor in Xinjiang, and confirming that the retailer had stopped buying cotton from growers in the region, began circulating on Chinese social media. The fallout was fast and furious. There were calls for a boycott, and H&M products were soon missing from China’s most popular e-commerce platforms, Alibaba Group’s Tmall and JD.com. The furor was stoked by comments on the microblogging site Sina Weibo from groups like the Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization.Within hours, other big Western brands like Nike and Burberry began trending for the same reason.And it’s not just consumers who are up in arms: Influencers and celebrities have also been severing ties with the brands. Even video games are bouncing virtual “looks” created by Burberry from their platforms.Backtrack: What do influencers have to do with all this?Influencers in China wield even more power over consumer behavior than they do in the West, meaning they play a crucial role in legitimizing brands and driving sales. When Tao Liang, otherwise known as Mr. Bags, did a collaboration with Givenchy, for example, the bags sold out in 12 minutes; a necklace-bracelet set he made with Qeelin reportedly sold out in one second (there were 100 made). That’s why H&M worked with Victoria Song, Nike with Wang Yibo and Burberry with Zhou Dongyu.But Chinese influencers and celebrities are also sensitive to pleasing the central government and publicly affirming their national values, often performatively choosing their country over contracts.In 2019, for example, Yang Mi, the Chinese actress and a Versace ambassador, publicly repudiated the brand when it made the mistake of creating a T-shirt that listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent countries, seeming to dismiss the “One China” policy and the central government’s sovereignty. Not long afterward, Coach was targeted after making a similar mistake, creating a tee that named Hong Kong and Taiwan separately; Liu Wen, the Chinese supermodel, immediately distanced herself from the brand.The actress Zhou Dongyu, the actor Wang Yibo and the singer and actress Victoria Song, all Chinese influencers who had deals with Western brands that they then  repudiated when their products were said to disrespect the Chinese people and government.VCG/VCG, via Getty ImagesAnd what’s with the video games?Tencent removed two Burberry-designed “skins” — outfits worn by video game characters that the brand had introduced with great fanfare — from its popular title Honor of Kings as a response to news that the brand had stopped buying cotton produced in the Xinjiang region. The looks had been available for less than a week.So this is hitting both fast fashion and the high end. How much of the fashion world is involved?Potentially, most of it. So far Adidas, Nike, Converse and Burberry have all been swept up in the crisis. Even before the ban, additional companies like Patagonia, PVH, Marks & Spencer and the Gap had announced that they did not source material from Xinjiang and had officially taken a stance against human rights abuses.This week, however, several brands, including VF Corp., Inditex (which owns Zara) and PVH all quietly removed their policies against forced labor from their websites.That seems squirrelly. Is this likely to escalate?Brands seem to be concerned that the answer is yes, since, apparently fearful of offending the Chinese government, some companies have proactively announced that they will continue buying cotton from Xinjiang. Hugo Boss, the German company whose suiting is a de facto uniform for the financial world, posted a statement on Weibo saying, “We will continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton” (even though last fall the company had announced it was no longer sourcing from the region). Muji, the Japanese brand, is also proudly touting its use of Xinjiang cotton on its Chinese websites, as is Uniqlo.Wait … I get playing possum, but why would a company publicly pledge its allegiance to Xinjiang cotton?It’s about the Benjamins, buddy. According to a report from Bain & Company released last December, China is expected to be the world’s largest luxury market by 2025. Last year it was the only part of the world to report year on year growth, with the luxury market reaching 44 billion euros ($52.2 billion).Is anyone going to come out of this well?One set of winners could be the Chinese fashion industry, which has long played second fiddle to Western brands, to the frustration of many businesses there. Shares in Chinese apparel groups and textile companies with ties to Xinjiang rallied this week as the backlash gained pace. And more than 20 Chinese brands publicly made statements touting their support for Chinese cotton. More

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    Organizing Gravediggers, Cereal Makers and, Maybe, Amazon Employees

    A group of gravediggers in Columbus, Ohio, who just negotiated a 3 percent raise. The poultry plant that processes chicken nuggets for McDonald’s. The workers who make Cap’n Crunch in Iowa. The women’s shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is not the largest labor union in the United States, but it may be one of the most eclectic. Its membership, totaling about 100,000 workers, seems to reach into every conceivable corner of the American economy, stretching from the cradle (they make Gerber baby food) to the grave (those cemetery workers in Columbus).And now it is potentially on the cusp of breaking into Amazon, one of the world’s most dominant companies, which since its founding has beaten back every attempt to organize any part of its massive work force in the United States.This month, a group of 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., are voting whether to join the R.W.D.S.U. It is the first large-scale union vote in Amazon’s history, and a decision by the workers to organize would have implications for the labor movement across the country, especially as retail giants like Amazon and Walmart have gained power — and added workers — during the pandemic.The Amazon campaign, said Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president, “is about the future of work and how working people are going to be treated in the new economy.”For some labor activists, the union and its early success at the Bessemer warehouse represent the vanguard of the modern organizing campaigns. It is outspoken on social issues and savvy on social media — posting a TikTok video of support from the rapper Killer Mike and tweeting an endorsement from the National Football League Players Association during the Super Bowl.“It’s a bit of an odd-duck union,” said Joshua Freeman, a professor emeritus of labor history at Queens College at the City University of New York. “They keep morphing over the years and have been very inventive in their tactics.”The union is also racially, geographically and politically diverse. Founded during a heyday of organized labor in New York City in 1937 — and perhaps best known for representing workers at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s — most of its members are now employed in right-to-work states, across the South and rural Midwest.Workers lowering a lid onto a vault at Union Cemetery in Columbus. Their organization is known as “a bit of an odd-duck union” for the variety of industries it covers.Brian Kaiser for The New York TimesLou Willis, operating a backhoe at the cemetery.Brian Kaiser for The New York TimesBrian Kaiser for The New York TimesWhile the union’s overall membership has stagnated over the past decade, the number of members in its Mid-South office, which includes Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana, has nearly doubled, to about 9,000 from 4,700 in 2011, driven by aggressive recruitment efforts in the poultry, warehouse and health care industries. More than half of its members across the country are workers of color.In the Mid-South office, which is leading the organizing at Amazon, local officials begin almost every meeting with a prayer, lean in favor of gun rights and say about half their members supported Donald J. Trump’s re-election bid. (Unlike the national union, which publicly backed President Biden, the southern office did not issue an endorsement of either candidate.)“We are known as the church union,” said Randy Hadley, president of the Mid-South Council. “We put God first, family second and then our jobs.”The retail and wholesale workers union is run nationally by Mr. Appelbaum, a Harvard Law School graduate and former Democratic Party operative from Hartford, Conn., who has written about his identity as a gay, Jewish labor leader.Since becoming union president in 1998, Mr. Appelbaum has created a niche by organizing workers from a wide variety of professions: airline caterers, employees in fast fashion stores and gardeners at a cannabis grow house. “When you buy a joint, look for the union label,” Mr. Appelbaum said jokingly.Stuart Appelbaum, the union president, in 2016. The Amazon effort, he said, “is about the future of work and how working people are going to be treated in the new economy.”Christian Hansen for The New York TimesThe strategy has helped the union to keep flourishing, even as its core work force in brick-and-mortar retail stores continues to shrink as shopping moves online.The union often ties its organizing campaigns to the broader struggle to advance the rights of vulnerable workers, such as the predominately gay, lesbian, trans and nonbinary employees in sex toy shops in New York and undocumented immigrants working in the city’s carwashes.After World War II, the union advocated for Black servicemen who were being shut out of jobs at Macy’s, which paid the highest commissions. “It has a history of being a militant, feisty, left-wing crowd,” Professor Freeman said.Even the Alabama office, which leans further to the right on some issues, has stood up for workers in ways that are locally unpopular.Mr. Hadley said one of his biggest accomplishments was negotiating a paid holiday on Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, at a Tyson poultry plant in Tennessee, where a large number of Somali immigrants work.“We had Muslims in the facility, they said, ‘We look at that day like Christmas,’ and I thought, ‘Who am I to judge?’” recalled Mr. Hadley, a former meat cutter. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”The president of the union’s Mid-South Council, Randy Hadley, back row, center right, with other leaders and staff in Birmingham, Ala. The Mid-South office is leading the organizing at Amazon.Retail, Wholesale and Department Store UnionRatified in 2008, the Muslim holiday took the place of Labor Day as one of the paid holidays that workers were allowed at the facility, and was criticized by some as being un-American.Over the years, the union has faced some powerful enemies. In the 1960s, its Black organizers were threatened — one was even shot at — while trying to sign up food industry workers across the South.Johnny Whitaker, a former dairy worker who started as a union organizer in the 1970s, said he had grown up in a white family in Hanceville, Ala., without much money. Still, he was shocked by the working conditions and racism he witnessed when he started organizing in the poultry plants years ago.Black workers were classified differently from their white counterparts and paid much less. Women were expected to engage in sexual acts with managers in exchange for more hours, he said. Many workers could not read or write.Despite threats that they would lose their jobs if they organized, thousands of poultry workers have joined the R.W.D.S.U. over the past three decades, though the industry still is predominantly nonunion.Roberto Cuellar, a union member and flight coordinator at Flying Food Group, an airline caterer whose workers are represented by the R.W.D.S.U.Meghan Marin for The New York TimesMr. Cuellar checked meals at Kennedy International Airport before a flight.Meghan Marin for The New York TimesMeghan Marin for The New York TimesWhen a small group of Amazon workers contacted the union in late August about their interest in organizing the Bessemer warehouse, Mr. Whitaker acknowledged, “there was a lot of doubt” internally about the idea.The R.W.D.S.U. had tried to lay the groundwork for organizing Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island in 2019, but the effort failed when the company pulled the plug on its plans to build a second headquarters in New York, known as HQ2, partly because of political pressure to allow organizing at its facilities.“What we learned from HQ2 was that Amazon was going to do anything it possibly could to avoid having a union at any of its workplaces,” Mr. Appelbaum said.At the time, Amazon said it canceled its plans after “a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project.”But the more the workers in Alabama kept talking to the union about their working conditions, the more Mr. Appelbaum and others believed the warehouse was fertile ground for organizing.The employee cafeteria at Flying Food Group.Meghan Marin for The New York TimesThe workers described the control that Amazon exerts over their work lives, including tracking their time in the restroom or other time spent away from their primary task in the warehouse. Some workers have said they can be penalized for taking too much time away from their specific assignments.“We are talking about bathroom breaks,” said Mr. Whitaker, an executive vice president at the union. “It’s the year 2021 and workers are being penalized for taking a pee.”In an email, an Amazon spokeswoman said the company does not penalize workers for taking bathroom breaks. “Those are not our policies,” she said. “People can take bathroom breaks.”The campaign in Bessemer has created some strange political bedfellows. Mr. Biden expressed his support for the Alabama workers to vote freely in the mail-in election, which ends later this month. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida went even further, encouraging the Bessemer workers to unionize in order to protect themselves against the “woke culture” at Amazon.A greenhouse in the PharmaCann facility near Montgomery, N.Y. The company grows cannabis for medical use in several states; the R.W.D.S.U. has organized workers there.David Steinberg for The New York TimesMark Etri Jr. assembling cartridges.David Steinberg for The New York TimesLiz Ferran tending to plants.David Steinberg for The New York TimesIf the union wins the election in Bessemer, the effort to court workers will continue. In a right-to-work state, workers are not required to pay union dues even if they are represented by a union.At a Quaker Oats plant in Iowa, which is also a right-to-work state, the R.W.D.S.U. finds ways to motivate workers to join the union by posting the names of workers who have not yet joined on a bulletin board.“In a right-to-work state, you are always organizing,” Mr. Hadley said.Early in the afternoon of Oct. 20, Mr. Hadley met with about 20 organizers before they headed out to the Bessemer warehouse to begin their campaign to sign up workers. The plan was for the organizers to stand at the warehouse gates talking to workers early in the morning and in the evening when their shift changes. In a pep talk with the group, Mr. Hadley invoked the story of David and Goliath.“We are going to hit Goliath in the nose every day, twice a day,” he told the group, referring to Amazon. “He’s going to see our union every morning when he comes to work, and I want him thinking about us when he closes his eyes at night.” More

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    In Between Stimulus Payments, Retail Sales Decline

    A 3 percent drop in February followed a rise the month before, putting a spotlight on how stimulus money is affecting consumer spending as the economy recovers.Retail sales slid in February after a jump the month before, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday, putting a spotlight on the effect of stimulus money on consumer spending, which is likely to move in fits and starts as the economy recovers.Sales for February dropped 3 percent, government data showed, as consumers grappled with waning stimulus effects and severe winter storms in parts of the country. The decline was sharper than some economists had expected, but sales for the month were still higher than a year before, when the pandemic began to squeeze the economy. Retail sales sharply declined in March 2020 amid widespread shutdowns.Sales in January had surged 7.6 percent — a gain that was most likely fueled by stimulus checks deposited at the end of last year. The increase in January, revised upward on Tuesday, benefited a broad array of retailers. Consumers spent more on goods, including at furniture sellers and department stores, as well as in restaurants, offering a positive sign for an economy that has been battered by the coronavirus outbreak.The data suggests that the recovery in consumer spending is likely to be bumpy as the retail sector recovers from shifts in consumer spending and a new round of stimulus payments arrives in Americans’ bank accounts. Retailers saw largely uneven sales for the better part of last year, as consumers flocked to big-box chains and grocery stores and spent less at many apparel retailers and restaurants. Balancing out those categories is likely to take a combination of stimulus money, vaccinations, improvements in unemployment numbers and warm weather.“It was obviously going to slow down a bit,” Mickey Chadha, a retail analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, said of the February sales.“Going forward, the new stimulus checks that are going out as we speak are definitely going to be a positive for retail sales in March and through April,” he added. “All indications are, as the vaccines roll out through the country and the pandemic gets under control, this capacity to spend is only going to fuel further sales in retail.”Economists at Morgan Stanley had forecast a 0.7 percent gain in February sales based on the outsize gains in January, and predicted that new stimulus money arriving in late March and early April would drive a spending surge in coming months.Robert Frick, corporate economist at the Navy Federal Credit Union, which is able to track credit card spending across its members, said that “we’re really in the eye of the retail spending hurricane right now,” with the stimulus effects from last month and the package yet to come. He said he expected that the economy would come back this year, but that retail spending was “going to be very much a jagged line” as it increased.“The crucial thing that we’re all looking at is when do we go from stimulus life support to the economy walking on its own two feet and people getting jobs and employment really surging?” Mr. Frick said. “That’s an open question.”President Biden signed into law a nearly $1.9 trillion relief plan last week, and direct payments of $1,400 per person are already making their way to the bank accounts of low- and middle-income Americans.The law, known as the American Rescue Plan, also extends $300 weekly federal jobless benefits through Sept. 6 and provides billions of dollars to distribute coronavirus vaccines and relief for schools, states, tribal governments and small businesses struggling during the pandemic.“Some of that money is bound to flow into retail — it just has to,” Mr. Chadha said.The major changes in consumer habits during the pandemic have been on display in recent weeks as retailers have reported their holiday and full-year earnings results. (Most retailers end their fiscal year at the close of January to fully capture holiday spending.)For example, Walmart reported fourth-quarter revenue that hit a record of $151 billion, up 7.3 percent from a year earlier, while Target also reported an increase in the same period, including a surge in digital sales. Consumers have gravitated to the chains in the past year, both in person and online, and increasingly used services like curbside pickup.But the story was different at Macy’s and Gap, one of the country’s biggest operators of mall stores, which posted sales declines in the fourth quarter and grim annual revenue drops as many consumers stayed away from malls and had fewer reasons to buy new clothes in an isolated environment. Gap, which also owns Old Navy and Banana Republic, pointed to stay-at-home restrictions and store closures as reasons for its tumbles.Still, Gap had a positive outlook for the back half of this year. “As vaccines roll out and stimulus checks begin, we currently view the second half of 2021 favorably, reflecting a likely return to a more normalized prepandemic level,” Katrina O’Connell, Gap’s chief financial officer, said on an earnings call this month.Jeff Gennette, Macy’s chief executive, said in an interview this month that the company was looking for “clues on what’s going on with wedding dates, what’s going on with restaurant reservations, what are the signs that communities are starting to open up.” That would help the company determine how consumers were planning “wearing occasions” this year, he said.The retail sales data for February showed declines from January across the board, including in categories like furniture, electronics and appliances, building materials and apparel. But Mr. Frick of the Navy Federal Credit Union said the decline, which was affected by the cold weather, needed to be read in context.“You have to factor in that it was a decline from an exceptionally strong January,” he said. “It was still $33 billion above February of last year, which of course was the last month before retail spending fell of a cliff.” More

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    How Amazon Crushes Unions

    Amazon’s warehouse in Chester, Va., where a union effort tried to organize about 30 facilities technicians in 2014 and 2015.Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesHow Amazon Crushes UnionsIn a secret settlement in Virginia, Amazon swore off threatening and intimidating workers. As the company confronts increased labor unrest, its tactics are under scrutiny.Amazon’s warehouse in Chester, Va., where a union effort tried to organize about 30 facilities technicians in 2014 and 2015.Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesSupported byContinue reading the main storyMarch 16, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ETRICHMOND, Va. — Five years ago, Amazon was compelled to post a “notice to employees” on the break-room walls of a warehouse in east-central Virginia.The notice was printed simply, in just two colors, and crammed with words. But for any worker who bothered to look closely, it was a remarkable declaration. Amazon listed 22 forms of behavior it said it would disavow, each beginning in capital letters: “WE WILL NOT.”“We will not threaten you with the loss of your job” if you are a union supporter, Amazon wrote, according to a photo of the notice reviewed by The New York Times. “We will not interrogate you” about the union or “engage in surveillance of you” while you participate in union activities. “We will not threaten you with unspecified reprisals” because you are a union supporter. We will not threaten to “get” union supporters.Amazon posted the list after the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers accused it of doing those very things during a two-year-long push to unionize 30 facilities technicians at the warehouse in Chester, just south of Richmond. While Amazon did not admit to violations of labor laws, the company promised in a settlement with federal regulators to tell workers that it would rigorously obey the rules in the future.The employee notice and failed union effort, which have not previously been reported, are suddenly relevant as Amazon confronts increasing labor unrest in the United States. Over two decades, as the internet retailer mushroomed from a virtual bookstore into a $1.5 trillion behemoth, it forcefully — and successfully — resisted employee efforts to organize. Some workers in recent years agitated for change in Staten Island, Chicago, Sacramento and Minnesota, but the impact was negligible.Bill Hough Jr., a machinist at the Chester warehouse who led the union drive. Amazon fired him in 2016.Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesIn an employee notice, Amazon listed behavior it said it would disavow.The arrival of the coronavirus last year changed that. It turned Amazon into an essential resource for millions stuck at home and redefined the company’s relationship with its warehouse workers. Like many service industry employees, they were vulnerable to the virus. As society locked down, they were also less able to simply move on if they had issues with the job.Now Amazon faces a union vote at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. — the largest and most viable U.S. labor challenge in its history. Nearly 6,000 workers have until March 29 to decide whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. A labor victory could energize workers in other U.S. communities, where Amazon has more than 800 warehouses employing more than 500,000 people.“This is happening in the toughest state, with the toughest company, at the toughest moment,” said Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “If the union can prevail given those three facts, it will send a message that Amazon is organizable everywhere.”Even if the union does not prevail, “the history of unions is always about failing forward,” she said. “Workers trying, workers losing, workers trying again.”The effort in Chester, which The Times reconstructed with documents from regulators and the machinists’ union, as well as interviews with former facilities technicians at the warehouse and union officials, offers one of the fullest pictures of what encourages Amazon workers to open the door to a union — and what techniques the company uses to slam the door and nail it shut.The employee notice was a hollow victory for workers. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that negotiated the settlement with Amazon, has no power to impose monetary penalties. Its enforcement remedies are few and weak, which means its ability to restrain anti-union employers from breaking the law is limited. The settlement was not publicized, so there were not even any public relations benefits.Amazon was the real winner. There have been no further attempts at a union in Chester.The tactics that Amazon used in Chester are surfacing elsewhere. The retail workers union said Amazon was trying to surveil employees in Bessemer and even changed a traffic signal to prevent organizers from approaching warehouse workers as they left the site. Last month, the New York attorney general said in a lawsuit that Amazon had retaliated against employees who tried to protest its pandemic safety measures as inadequate.Amazon declined to say whether it had complied with labor laws during the union drive in Chester in 2014 and 2015. In a statement, it said it was “compliant with the National Labor Relations Act in 2016” when it issued the employee notice, and “we continue to be compliant today.” It added in a different statement that it didn’t believe the union push in Alabama “represents the majority of our employees’ views.”The labor board declined to comment.The Chester settlement notice mentions one worker by name: Bill Hough Jr., a machinist who led the union drive. The notice said Amazon had issued a warning to Mr. Hough that he was on the verge of being fired. Amazon said it would rescind the warning.Six months later, in August 2016, Amazon fired him anyway.Mr. Hough (pronounced Huff) was in a hospital having knee surgery when Amazon called and said he had used up his medical leave. Since he couldn’t do his job, he said he was told, this was the end of the line.“There was no mercy, even after what they had done to me,” Mr. Hough, now 56, said. “That’s Amazon. If you can’t give 110 percent, you’re done.”Amazon declined to comment on Mr. Hough.No ConstraintsA truck at the warehouse in Chester. Amazon has been fending off attempts to unionize since at least 1999. Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesAmazon was founded on notions of speed, efficiency and hard work — lots of hard work. Placing his first help wanted ad in 1994, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, said he wanted engineers who could do their job “in about one-third the time that most competent people think possible.”Amazon managers openly warned recruits that if they liked things comfortable, this would be a difficult, perhaps impossible, job. For customer service representatives, it was difficult to keep up, according to media accounts and labor organizers. Overtime was mandatory. Supervisors sent emails with subject headings like “YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.”In 1999, the reps, who numbered about 400, were targeted by a grass-roots group affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. Amazon mounted an all-out defense.If workers became anything less than docile, managers were told, it was a sign there could be union activity. Tipoffs included “hushed conversations” and “small group huddles breaking up in silence on the approach of the supervisor,” as well as increased complaints, growing aggressiveness and dawdling in the bathroom.Amazon was in sync with the larger culture. Unions were considered relics of the industrial past. Disruption was a virtue.“Twenty years ago, if you asked whether the government or workers should be able to put any constraints on companies, the answer always was ‘No constraints,’” said Marcus Courtney, a labor organizer on the 1999 Amazon campaign. “If companies wanted to push people 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, hats off to them.”When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Amazon lost some of its glow. For a time, its very existence was in question.This caused problems for the activists as well. The company reorganized and closed the customer service center, though Amazon said there was no connection with the union drive. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Prewitt Organizing Fund, an independent group, made no inroads organizing Amazon’s 5,000 warehouse workers.A decade later, in 2011, came a low point in Amazon’s labor history. The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pa., revealed that Amazon was hiring paramedics and ambulances during summer heat waves at a local warehouse. Workers who collapsed were removed with stretchers and wheelchairs and taken to hospitals.Amazon installed air conditioning but otherwise was undaunted. After the Great Recession in 2008, there was no lack of demand for its jobs — and no united protest about working conditions. In Europe, where unions are stronger, there were sporadic strikes. In the United States, isolated warehouse walkouts drew no more than a handful of workers.The MachinistMr. Hough said he had felt pressured to cut corners to keep conveyor belts running.Credit…Ruth Fremson for The New York TimesMr. Hough worked as an industrial machinist at a Reynolds aluminum mill in Richmond for 24 years. He once saw a worker lose four fingers when a steel roller fell unexpectedly. Incidents like that made a deep impression on him: Never approach equipment casually.Reynolds closed the plant in the Great Recession, when Mr. Hough was in his mid-40s. Being in the machinists guild cushioned the blow, but he needed another job. After a long spell of unemployment, he joined Amazon in 2013.The Chester warehouse, the size of several aircraft carriers, had opened a year earlier, part of Amazon’s multibillion-dollar push to put fulfillment centers everywhere. Mr. Hough worked on the conveyor belts bringing in the goods.At first, he received generally good marks. “He has a great attitude and does not participate in negative comments or situations,” Amazon said in a March 2014 performance review. “He gets along with all the other technicians.”But Mr. Hough said he had felt pressured to cut corners to keep the belts running. Amazon prided itself on getting purchases to customers quickly, and when conveyor belts were down that mission was in jeopardy. He once protested restarting a belt while he was still working on it.“Quit your bitching,” Mr. Hough said his manager, Bryon Frye, had told him, twice.“That sent me down the wrong road,” Mr. Hough said.Bryon Frye’s tweet about Amazon union campaigns.Credit…TwitterMr. Frye, who declined to comment, no longer works for Amazon. On Twitter last month, he responded to a news story that said Amazon was hiring former F.B.I. agents to deal with worker activism, counterfeiting and antitrust issues.“This doesn’t shock me,” he wrote. “They do some wild things.”The Union DriveMembers of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union distributed literature outside the Alabama warehouse where Amazon workers are voting on whether to join the union.Credit…Bob Miller for The New York TimesIn 2014, Mr. Hough and five other technicians approached the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. A unionization effort was already taking place with the technicians at an Amazon warehouse in Middletown, Del. If either succeeded, it would be the first for Amazon.The elections for a union would be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. The first step was to measure interest. At least 18 of the 30 technicians in Chester returned cards indicating their willingness to be represented by the union.“It was not too difficult to sign people up,” said Russell Wade, a union organizer there. “But once the word leaked out to Amazon, they put the afterburners on, as employers do. Then the workers started losing interest. Amazon spent oodles of money to scare the hell out of employees.”The board scheduled an election for March 4, 2015. A simple majority of votes cast would establish union representation.Amazon brought in an Employee Resource Center team — basically, its human resources department — to reverse any momentum. A former technician at the warehouse, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation, said the reps on the team followed workers around, pretending to be friendly but only seeking to know their position on the union drive.If safety was the biggest issue for the technicians, there were also concerns over pay equity — machinists said they were paid different amounts for doing the same job — and about their lack of control over their fate. Part of Mr. Hough’s pitch was that a union would make management less arbitrary.“One guy, all I remember is his name was Bob,” he said. “They paged Bob to the control room, and the next thing I saw was Bob coming down the steps. He had taken off his work vest. I said, ‘Bob, where are you going?’ He said, ‘They terminated me.’ I didn’t ask why. That’s the way it was.”Several technicians said they recalled being told at a meeting, “You vote for a union, every one of you will be looking for a job tomorrow.” At another, the most outspoken union supporters were described as “a cancer and a disease to Amazon and the facility,” according to Mr. Hough and a union memo. (In a filing to the labor board, Amazon said it had investigated the incident and “concluded that it could not be substantiated.”)Mr. Hough, a cancer survivor, said the reference had offended him. He declined to attend another meeting run by that manager. He said he had known in any case what she was going to say: that the union was canceling the election because it thought it would lose. Amazon had triumphed.On March 30, 2015, Mr. Hough received a written warning from Mr. Frye, his manager.“Your behavior has been called out by peers/leaders as having a negative impact,” it said. Included under “insubordination” was a refusal to attend the Amazon victory announcement. Another incident, Amazon said, could result in termination.The machinists union filed a complaint with the labor board in July 2015 alleging unfair labor practices by Amazon, including surveilling, threatening and “informing employees that it would be futile to vote for union representation.” Mr. Hough spent eight hours that summer giving his testimony. While labor activists and unions generally consider the board to be heavily tilted in favor of employers, union officials said a formal protest would at least show Chester technicians that someone was fighting for them.In early 2016, Amazon settled with the board. The main thrust of the two-page settlement was that Amazon would post an employee notice promising good behavior while admitting nothing.Wilma Liebman, a member of the labor board from 1997 to 2011, examined the employee notice at the request of The Times. “What is unusual to my eye is how extensive Amazon’s pledges were, and how specific,” she said. “While the company did not have to admit guilt, this list offers a picture of what likely was going on.”Amazon was required to post the notice “in all places where notices to employees are customarily posted” in Chester for 60 days, the labor board said.From the machinists union’s point of view, it wasn’t much of a punishment.“This posting was basically a slap on the wrist for the violations that Amazon committed, which included lies, coercion, threats and intimidation,” said Vinny Addeo, the union’s director of organizing.Another reason for filing an unfair labor practices claim was that the union hoped to restart its efforts with a potentially chastened company. But most of the employees who supported the Chester drive quit.“They were intimidated,” Mr. Wade, the union organizer, said.Mr. Hough was beset by ill health during his years at Amazon. Radiation treatment for his cancer prompted several strokes. His wife, Susan, had health problems, too. Mr. Hough said he wondered how much the unionization struggle contributed to their problems. He added that he didn’t know whom to trust.After leaving Amazon, Mr. Hough began driving trucks, at first long haul and later a dump truck. It paid less, but he said he was at peace.Maximum Green TimesNearly 6,000 workers in Bessemer have until March 29 to decide whether to join the union.Credit…Wes Frazer for The New York TimesWhen Amazon vanquished the 2014 union drive in Delaware, the retailer said it was a victory for “open lines of direct communication between managers and associates.”One place Amazon developed that direct communication was in its warehouse bathrooms under what it called its “inSTALLments” program. The inSTALLments were informational sheets that offered, for instance, factoids about Mr. Bezos, the timing of meetings and random warnings, such as this one about unpaid time off: “If you go negative, your employment status will be reviewed for termination.”Amazon’s “inSTALLments” program used postings in warehouse bathrooms to communicate with workers.Credit…The New York TimesAs the union drive heated up in Bessemer, the direct communication naturally was about that. “Where will your dues go?” Amazon asked in one stall posting, which circulated on social media. Another proclaimed: “Unions can’t. We can.”Amazon also set up a website to tell workers that they would have to skip dinner and school supplies to pay their union dues.In December, a pro-union group discovered, Amazon asked county officials to increase “maximum green times” on the warehouse stoplight to clear the parking lot faster. This made it difficult for union canvassers to approach potential voters as they left work. Amazon declined to comment.Last month, President Biden weighed in.“There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” he said in a video that never mentioned Amazon but referred to “workers in Alabama” deciding whether to organize a union. “You know, every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice.”Owning 25 HatsMr. Hough, in an interview before the pandemic, said part of him wanted to forget what had happened at Amazon. Why dwell on defeat? He threw away all the papers from the union drive. He never saw the employee notice because he was recovering from a stroke.But he has not forgiven the retailer.“You’re only going to step on me one time,” he said, sitting in his home in the outskirts of Richmond.Amazon’s customers just don’t know how miserable a job there can be, he suggested.“I guarantee you, if their child had to work there, they’d think twice before purchasing things,” he said.Ms. Hough, sitting next to him, had a bleaker view.“The customers don’t care about unions. They don’t care about the workers. They just want their packages,” she said.As if on cue, their son, Brody, came in. He was 20, an appliance technician. His mother told him there was a package for him on his bed. It was from Amazon, a fishing hat. It cost $25, Brody said, half the price on the manufacturer’s website.“I order from Amazon anything I can find that is cheaper,” Brody said. That adds up to a lot of hats, about 25. “I’ve never worked for Amazon. I can’t hate them,” he said.Ms. Hough looked at her husband. “If your own son doesn’t care,” she asked, not unkindly, “how are you going to get the American public to care?”The pandemic helped change that, bringing safety issues at Amazon to the forefront. In a Feb. 16 suit against Amazon, the New York attorney general, Letitia James, said the company continued last year to track and discipline employees based on their productivity rates. That meant workers had limited time to protect themselves from the virus. The suit said Amazon retaliated against those who complained, sending a “chilling message” to all its workers. Amazon has denied the allegations.Last week, regional Canadian authorities also ordered thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse near Toronto to quarantine themselves, effectively closing the facility. Some 240 workers recently tested positive for the virus there, a government spokeswoman said, even as the rate of infection in the area fell. Amazon said it was appealing the decision.Alabama is now the big test. Mr. Hough worries the union supporters will be crushed.“They will fall to threats or think, ‘I won’t have a job, Amazon will replace me,’” he said by phone this month. “When a company can do things to you in secret, it’s real hard to withstand.”Still, he added, “I’m hoping for the best. More power to them.”AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    Paper Source Files for Bankruptcy, Frustrating Cardmakers

    The dispute between Paper Source and its vendors has turned a typically friendly industry sour at the moment.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York TimesSkip to contentSkip to site indexPaper Source’s Bankruptcy Leaves Female Cardmakers Feeling BurnedThe chain’s vendors, most of them small-business owners, say they are worried they won’t be paid for orders delivered in the weeks just before the filing.The dispute between Paper Source and its vendors has turned a typically friendly industry sour at the moment.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York TimesSupported byContinue reading the main storyMarch 10, 2021Updated 5:59 p.m. ET“Hell hath no fury like a stationer scorned.”That was the opening salvo of an Instagram post last week from Lisa Krowinski, founder of Sapling Press, a letterpress design and print shop in Pittsburgh. Ms. Krowinski was reeling after Paper Source, the stationery chain with 158 stores, abruptly filed for bankruptcy on March 2. Her five-person business had fulfilled big orders from the chain in January and February, and was owed more than $20,000 for items like Father’s Day cards and tea towels.The post attracted a slew of comments from other frustrated cardmakers — a niche industry dominated by female entrepreneurs — who were also concerned about whether they would get paid. Paper Source sent an email to vendors a day after it filed for bankruptcy, saying they would be paid in full for goods provided on or after March 2, and to file claims to retrieve the rest.“As a community, we feel that we’ve been taken advantage of in a way that no small business should have been, especially coming off a pandemic,” said Ms. Krowinski, 46, who sold goods to Paper Source for nine years. “It hurt extra hard.”Paper Source, founded in 1983, is the latest national retailer to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection during the pandemic, a process that companies from J.C. Penney to J.Crew have used to keep their brands alive while getting out of store leases and cutting debt.The difference with Paper Source is that vendors say that the company placed significant new orders for cards and gifts in the run-up to the filing, even pushing to expedite deliveries. Now, it is unclear how much money vendors will recoup. The vendors are largely creative women who run small businesses on their own or with a handful of employees.“Women have already been so hurt in this pandemic disproportionately to men just in terms of the types of jobs we do and having families to take care of,” said Janie Velencia, the 30-year-old owner of the Card Bureau in Lorton, Va., which is owed $15,000 from Paper Source. “They did this to a bunch of female-owned companies during Women’s History Month and just before International Women’s Day.” (Paper Source is currently selling products celebrating those events.)Paper Source is now dealing with the unusually public fallout with its vendors, who happen to be in the trade of sharp and skilled communication, as it aims to keep operating. The company, based in Chicago, made its January and February orders “with the thought process at the time that we actually avoid Chapter 11 and potentially have an investor come into the business,” Winnie Park, Paper Source’s chief executive, said in an interview. “Unfortunately, those options didn’t materialize.”Ms. Park said that she was concerned about online “misinformation” about the bankruptcy, and that the company planned to create a webinar to help its more than 1,200 vendors understand how to file claims. She said that she hoped suppliers, roughly 250 of whom are cardmakers, would receive “normal or nearly full payments” through special financing for “critical vendors” and a court ruling that prioritizes suppliers whose goods were received in the 20 days before the filing.“Our intention was never to hurt women and female entrepreneurs,” Ms. Park, 49, said. “We have gone through a pandemic that was longer and deeper than any of us anticipated, and we have a path forward that we want to engage these women entrepreneurs in.”Still, three vendors shared emails from Paper Source in which the company offered them payments from the critical vendor fund that were between 10 percent and 30 percent of what they were owed. In exchange for the money, Paper Source said it needed confirmation that vendors would continue to provide goods to the chain, according to the emails, which were shared on the condition of anonymity because they were confidential.Among the biggest sticking points with vendors are the January and February orders. They question whether Paper Source knew it was making purchases that it could not pay for — at least not on time. Paper Source typically pays for goods 30 to 60 days after they are received. According to court documents, the company started preparing for a Chapter 11 filing in early February after failing to obtain a capital infusion or interest from 138 potential buyers last year.Alex Gagné Glover, the founder and chief executive of Chez Gagné, a seller of cards and drinkware in Los Angeles, said that Paper Source placed big new orders with her four-person company in December, January and February for letterpress-printed cards for anniversaries (“Doing this life thing with you is pretty awesome”) and friends (“you’re my soul sister”) and pushed for them to be delivered by the end of February. She thought the orders represented a glimmer of hope for post-pandemic sales. She said the chain now owed her more than $20,000.“It’s just really shady they would place so many orders with so many small businesses before the bankruptcy filing,” Ms. Gagné Glover, 33, said. Alex Gagné Glover, owner of Chez Gagné, which specializes in letterpress greeting cards and drinkware, said Paper Source owed her more than $20,000. Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York TimesMs. Velencia said most of what she was owed came from orders this year. Sapling Press said it received its biggest order in months from Paper Source at the start of February. Steel Petal Press, a Chicago stationery and gift shop, said that it was waiting on five outstanding payments from Paper Source, including three orders made before the bankruptcy that it was asked to rush out.“There was no reason to rush through a $7,000 Father’s Day order — those cards were not going on the shelf in the middle of February,” Ms. Krowinski of Sapling Press said.Ms. Park said that the orders were not connected to the company’s bankruptcy. Paper Source has been trying to revive its inventory for months, she said, especially because it had to stock about 27 new locations that it acquired just before for the pandemic hit through the bankruptcy of Papyrus, its former rival. “We have been trying to get our inventory in greeting cards in a healthy position since last October when it was very clear we were really low in stock,” she said.But the move amplified the vendors’ confusion. “The fact that January came and brands started getting these big orders, they were happy and excited thinking this was great, things are on the upswing again and then it was not the case,” said Katie Hunt, a business coach who works with stationery vendors through her company, Proof to Product. “The optics are bad.”Paper Source, which has been privately held for years, is a relatively small retailer but a behemoth among stationery-makers, a friendly industry with regular trade shows and even “paper camps,” where aspiring cardmakers network and learn how to get their goods in bookshops and other chains, like Nordstrom. Because of its size, Paper Source is able to command concessions like longer payment deadlines. It has even solicited credits of up to $250 from vendors to help build new stores, according to emails reviewed by The New York Times.Paper Source has about 1,700 employees, the vast majority of whom are hourly, and it posted gross sales of $104 million last year, down from $153 million in 2019, according to court documents.Like many retailers, Paper Source’s sales plummeted last year as it grappled with shutdowns, capacity restrictions and “the wave of canceled weddings,” according to filings. It closed stores, eliminated jobs and cut the pay of senior managers. The company estimated that 30 percent of its formerly loyal shoppers have not visited a store or purchased from its website since the pandemic started.Paper Source has more than 1,200 vendors, some of whom are taking their frustrations public on social media.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York TimesCourt documents show that it has more than $100 million in debt and leases that cost $36 million annually. The company, which was majority-owned by Investcorp, secured short-term financing as part of the filing and plans to sell itself to lenders by the end of May. Paper Source declined to comment on specific costs tied to its debt.Many vendors said they understood that Paper Source was challenged by the pandemic. But while Paper Source can restructure, there is no guarantee of when or how much its suppliers will get paid.“I don’t think anyone’s mad at Paper Source for filing for bankruptcy,” said Kyle Durrie, who owns Power and Light Press in Silver City, N.M., and is owed about $8,000 from Paper Source. “Where I think this is really hitting a lot of us hard is just feeling like we’re being taken advantage of, and we have no rights or recourse because of how small we are.”While some vendors said that they would not work with Paper Source anymore, Ms. Park said she was optimistic that relations would improve with more education.“Bankruptcy is a well-worn path for those professionals who engage in it and do it every day,” she said. “For a community like Paper Source that’s never been through it, or our makers who have never been through it, it is confusing.”Gillian Friedman More

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    Photos: How Covid Changed New York’s Economy

    Aug. 23, 2020 Times Square Oct. 1, 2020 Inside the Astoria, Queens, home of a couple while they worked alongside their two small children As the virus marched across the United States last year,over 20 million jobs vanished in just one month, the worst toll since the Great Depression. In New York, where cases peaked […] More

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    Amazon Workers’ Union Drive Reaches Far Beyond Alabama

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyAmazon Workers’ Union Drive Reaches Far Beyond AlabamaA vote on whether to form a union at the e-commerce giant’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., has become a labor showdown, drawing the attention of N.F.L. players, and the White House.The votes on whether to form a union at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., need to be in by the end of the month.Credit…Bob Miller for The New York TimesMichael Corkery and March 2, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ETPlayers from the National Football League were among the first to voice their support. Then came Stacey Abrams, the Democratic star who helped turn Georgia blue in the 2020 election. The actor Danny Glover traveled to Bessemer, Ala., for a news conference last week, where he invoked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pro-union leanings in urging workers at Amazon’s warehouse there to organize. Tina Fey has weighed in, and so has Senator Bernie Sanders.Then on Sunday, President Biden issued a resounding declaration of solidarity with the workers now voting on whether to form a union at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse, without mentioning the company by name. Posted to his official Twitter account, his video was one of the most forceful statements in support of unionizing by an American president in recent memory.“Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union,” Mr. Biden said.A unionizing campaign that had deliberately stayed under the radar for months has in recent days blossomed into a star-studded showdown to influence the workers. On one side is the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and its many pro-labor allies in the worlds of politics, sports and Hollywood. On the other is one of the world’s dominant companies, an e-commerce behemoth that has warded off previous unionizing efforts at its U.S. facilities over its more than 25-year history.The attention is turning this union vote into a referendum not just on working conditions at the Bessemer warehouse, which employs 5,800, but on the plight of low-wage employees and workers of color in particular. Many of the employees in the Alabama warehouse are Black, a fact that the union organizers have highlighted in their campaign seeking to link the vote to the struggle for civil rights in the South.The retail workers union has a long history of organizing Black workers in the poultry and food production industries, helping them gain basic benefits like paid time off and safety protections and a means to economic security. The union is portraying its efforts in Bessemer as part of that legacy.“This is an organizing campaign in the right-to-work South during the pandemic at one of the largest companies in the world,” said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School. “The significance of a union victory there really couldn’t be overstated.”The warehouse workers began voting by mail on Feb. 8 and the ballots are due at the end of this month. A union can form if a majority of the votes cast favor such a move.Amazon has posted signs in the facility and held meetings with workers, urging them not to unionize.Credit…Wes Frazer for The New York TimesAmazon’s countercampaign, both inside the warehouse and on a national stage, has zeroed in on pure economics: that its starting wage is $15 an hour, plus benefits. That is far more than its competitors in Alabama, where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.“It’s important that employees understand the facts of joining a union,” Heather Knox, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We will provide education about that and the election process so they can make an informed decision. If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site and it’s important associates understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.” The company, which went on a huge hiring spree last year as homebound customers sent its sales to a record $386 billion, recorded more than $22 billion in profit.In Alabama, some workers are growing weary of the process. One employee recently posted on Facebook: “This union stuff getting on my nerves. Let it be March 30th already!!!”The situation is getting testy, with union leaders accusing Amazon of a series of “union-busting” tactics.The company has posted signs across the warehouse, next to hand sanitizing stations and even in bathroom stalls. It sends regular texts and emails, pointing out the problems with unions. It posts photos of workers in Bessemer on the internal company app saying how much they love Amazon.At certain training sessions, company representatives have pointed out the cost of union dues. When some workers have asked pointed questions in the meetings, the Amazon representatives followed up with them at their work stations re-emphasizing the downsides of unions, employees and organizers say. The meetings stopped once the voting started, but the signs are still up, said Jennifer Bates, a pro-union worker in the warehouse.In this charged atmosphere, even routine things have become suspect. The union has raised questions about the changing of the timing of a traffic light near the warehouse where labor organizers try to talk to the workers as they are stopped in their vehicles while leaving the facility.Amazon did ask county officials in mid-December to change the light’s timing, though there is no evidence in the county records that the change was made to thwart the union. “Traffic for Amazon is backing up around shift change,” the public records stated as the reason the county altered the light.Amazon regularly navigates traffic concerns around its facilities, and wasting unpaid time in congested parking lots is a frequent gripe of Amazon workers in Facebook groups.But the retail workers’ union president, Stuart Appelbaum, questioned the timing of the request in Bessemer, coming as it did at the height of the organizing. “When the light was red we could answer questions and have a brief conversation with workers,” he said.Last week, the union questioned an offer the company made to the Alabama warehouse workers to pay them at least $1,000 if they quit by late March. Mr. Appelbaum accused the company of trying to entice employees to leave before the vote ended.“They are trying to remove the most likely union supporters from their work force by bribing them to leave and give up their vote,” he said in an interview.But “The Offer,” as it’s known among employees, was the same that Amazon made to workers at all of its warehouses around the country. It is an annual program that lets the company reduce its head count after the peak holiday shopping season without layoffs. It has been in place since at least 2014, when Jeff Bezos wrote about it in a shareholder letter.“Once a year, we offer to pay our associates to quit,” Mr. Bezos said at the time. “In the long run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.”Mr. Appelbaum was not swayed. He said he believed that Amazon had chosen to make the offer across all of its warehouses when it did in order to help eliminate possible “yes” votes in Bessemer.President Biden stopped short of urging the Amazon workers to unionize, but his statement instantly raised the stakes of an already momentous campaign.“Let me be really clear,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear: It’s not up to an employer to decide that, either. The choice to join a union is up to the workers. Full stop.”He added, “Workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. This is vitally important — a vitally important choice.” And it is one, he said, that should be made without intimidation or threats.Workers around the country, including Seattle, have expressed support for the union vote in Alabama.Credit…Jason Redmond/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesDespite the union’s suspicions, it has not filed any formal complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, Mr. Appelbaum said. Typically, unions can raise objections to a company’s tactics before an election and the labor board can step in.If a complaint were to be filed, the labor board could potentially determine that the election is invalid because of Amazon’s actions. But after working for months to build support inside and outside the Amazon warehouse, the last thing the union wants is for the labor board to intervene and rule that the election must be held again. The voting has already been taking place in Bessemer for nearly a month.Mr. Sachs, of Harvard Law School, said that despite Mr. Biden’s admonishments of companies’ interfering in elections, the current labor law does allow Amazon to hold certain mandatory meetings with workers to discuss why they shouldn’t unionize and enables the company to post anti-union messages around the workplace.“It is very helpful that the president is calling out these tactics, but what we need is a new labor law to stop companies from interfering,” he said.It is rare for such a large union election to be held by mail. Over Amazon’s objections, the labor board required a mail-in vote after determining that federal election monitors would be at risk of contracting Covid-19 if they had to travel to Bessemer to oversee in-person voting.By pushing back aggressively against the union, Amazon risks angering Democrats in Washington, many of whom are already calling for more antitrust scrutiny of big tech companies, whose businesses have grown even larger in the pandemic. Amazon has mounted a public campaign supporting legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, buying prominent ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications.In his video on Sunday, President Biden specifically mentioned how unions can help “Black and brown workers” and vulnerable workers struggling during the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.Ms. Bates, 48, one of the leaders of the union drive, started working at the Bessemer warehouse in May.She said she felt insulted by some of Amazon’s anti-union efforts, particularly the company’s statements to the staff that they would be required to pay nearly $500 in union dues every year. Because Alabama is a right-to-work state, there is no such requirement that a union member pay dues.“It angers me a little bit because I feel like they know the truth and they won’t tell the truth and are taking advantage because they know employees come from a community that is looked on as Black and low income,” said Ms. Bates, who is Black. “It felt really horrible that you would stand there and mislead people intentionally. Give them the facts and let them decide.”AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More