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Efforts to unionize workers has taken off across the country

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In two different parts of the country, two Amazon union elections hang in the balance. On Staten Island in New York, workers have been voting on a unionizing effort that was started by a former employee who was fired two years ago. Another election in Bessemer, Ala., is a do-over after complaints about company practices during the first vote. For more on all this, we're joined by NPR's Andrea Hsu. Andrea, lots of drama, lots of suspense here; catch us up on where we are with the count.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Well, yeah, let's start in Bessemer, Ala. They finished counting the votes yesterday, and the no votes finished ahead, but it was close, and there are more than 400 challenged ballots. You know, these may be ballots from workers whose eligibility is being questioned by one side or the other. So there's going to be a hearing to determine if any of those can be counted, but we may not get a final result for weeks. Now, on Staten Island, the counting is going to resume this morning. And as of last night, the yes votes had a pretty sizable lead, but there are still quite a lot of ballots left to count.

MARTINEZ: OK. So it looks like maybe Staten Island might actually vote to unionize. How big of a deal would that be?

HSU: A huge deal, A. No Amazon facility in the U.S. is unionized. And what's especially notable is that unlike the Alabama campaign, which is backed by this national union, the one in Staten Island is truly a grassroots operation. They call themselves the Amazon Labor Union, and its leader is this guy Christian Smalls. He's in his early 30s. He was working at the Staten Island warehouse when COVID hit. And just around this time two years ago, he organized a walkout over safety concerns. Some workers had caught the virus. And he was fired that same day. Now, Amazon said he had violated COVID safety protocols. He had been asked to quarantine because of an exposure to COVID, but he showed up for the walkout. So then he launched this upstart union drive, which he financed through GoFundMe, and he got some of his former co-workers on board. And their thinking was that as insiders with access to the workers, they might have better success than an outside group.

MARTINEZ: What are the organizers asking for?

HSU: They're looking for a whole range of things, like longer lunch breaks and better health care plans and higher wages. On Staten Island at the Amazon facilities, the pay starts at $18.25 an hour, but this is New York. It's an expensive place to live. And Chris Smalls has said that a lot of workers take on second jobs to earn enough for themselves and their families, and some even rely on public assistance.

MARTINEZ: And Amazon isn't the only place seeking union activity right now.

HSU: Yeah. You know, this has been bubbling up in a lot of different places. And one place that we're watching closely is Starbucks. There has been a wave of organizing at Starbucks locations, and the elections that have taken place so far have been tiny compared to the Amazon ones because they're store by store. But the campaign is really taking off fast. Nine stores have voted to unionize so far. And these are stores in Buffalo, N.Y., Knoxville, Tenn., Mesa, Ariz., and Seattle. So they're all over the country. And more than 180 stores have filed petitions for union elections, with more added almost every day.

And what I'm hearing from workers is they want more money. They want more respect from the companies that they helped make profitable through the pandemic. Meanwhile, you know, companies like Amazon and Starbucks are pointing to the raises that they've given workers recently and the great benefits they offer. You know, at Amazon, health insurance is offered on day one to new full-time employees. And both of those companies offer education benefits, you know, tuition reimbursement. So they're saying we've done all of this without unions, and we don't need them now.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Andrew Hsu, thanks a lot.

HSU: Thanks so much, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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