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Biden hails Amazon workers pressing to unionize in Alabama in unusual sign of support

The president tweeted a video calling out warehouse workers in the process of voting to determine whether they will be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

Tray Ragland, left, and Kim Hickerson of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union hold signs outside an Amazon facility Bessemer, Ala., where the union is trying to organize warehouse workers. (Jay Reeves/AP)

SEATTLE — President Biden gave Amazon warehouse staff in Alabama fighting to join a union their biggest support yet, tweeting a video Sunday night saying workers should be able to make their decision in the election without pressure from the company.

More than 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., are in the middle of a seven-week voting period to determine whether they want the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to represent them. Although Biden didn’t name Amazon in the video, he made it clear that he supports the union drive.

“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,” Biden said.

And he exhorted employers to refrain from taking any sort of steps that might pressure workers from supporting a union.

“There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” Biden said.

Biden’s move to weigh in strongly supporting workers’ rights to organize in the midst of such a high-profile campaign was a major break with historical precedent and another sign of his commitment to a campaign promise to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”

Workers at the Amazon facility began voting on unionization Feb. 8 in what has become one of the most important recent labor battles at one of the country’s largest employers. Although many of Amazon’s European warehouse workers are union members, the e-commerce giant has successfully fended off organized labor at its U.S. facilities throughout its 27-year life.

The closest American workers came was in 2014, when a small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at the company’s Middletown, Del., warehouse rejected union representation from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers after a hard-fought battle with the company.

Amazon has actively worked to discourage its Bessemer employees from supporting the union, calling them into mandatory meetings to disparage the union, peppering them with texts urging “no” votes and even placing fliers on the inside of bathroom stalls at the warehouse decrying the collection of union dues.

Amazon’s anti-union blitz stalks Alabama warehouse workers everywhere, even the bathroom

Amazon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company has previously said it doesn’t believe “the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views.” (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Biden’s video also is striking because Jay Carney, who served as Biden’s communications director when he was vice president, as well as the press secretary for President Barack Obama, is Amazon’s senior vice president of global corporate affairs.

Union supporters encouraged Biden to get involved in the union campaign. In early February, staffers at a new media advocacy outlet called More Perfect Union told White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain in a phone call that Biden should speak out on behalf of the Amazon union drive. The group again urged Biden to do so last week.

About three dozen organizations and unions such as Unite Here and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA sent a letter last week urging the president to voice solidarity with Amazon workers.

“We haven’t had this aggressive and positive of a statement from a president of the United States on behalf of workers in decades,” said Faiz Shakir, a former senior aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the founder of More Perfect Union, which has released a series of videos on the Amazon unionization drive. “It is monumental that you have a president sending a message to workers across the country that if you take the courageous step to start to unionize you will have allies in the administration, the NLRB, and the Labor Department. It means a lot.”

Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama file to hold unionization vote

The union trying to organize the Amazon workers expressed gratitude to Biden on Sunday night.

“As President Biden points out, the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is by organizing into unions,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement.

One historian called Biden’s decision to send such a strong message of support for workers amid a tense campaign to unionize a potentially watershed moment.

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“It’s almost unprecedented in American history,” said Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island. “We have the sense that previous presidents in the mid-20th century were overtly pro-union, but that really wasn’t the case. Even FDR never really came out and told workers directly to support a union.”

Loomis said the video was a sign of the ways the Democratic Party has moved to the left on issues of economic justice in the past decade.

“It’s a signal that the Biden administration is listening to the left flank of the Democratic Party,” he said. “It’s governing like liberals have wanted a Democratic president to govern for a long time. He’s not Bernie Sanders, but he sees where the Democratic Party is and he’s moving in that direction as quickly as is politically feasible.”

As a comparison, some pointed to a statement made by Carney when he was Obama’s press secretary in 2011, in which he seemed critical of teacher unions in Wisconsin as they struggled with Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Biden has taken a number of other steps that have pleased labor advocates and liberals on issues around worker power in his first few weeks in office.

He fired Peter Robb, a Trump appointee at the National Labor Relations Board, the agency that oversees union elections, who was seen as a major antagonist of union campaigns, within a day of taking office in January. His incoming labor secretary, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, has a strong union background, having risen to prominence in the city through a local union chapter. Other high-profile appointees such as Jennifer Abruzzo, Biden’s pick to replace Robb, have also come from the world of organized labor.

And union groups and liberals are still hoping that the administration will lend its weight behind the push to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, an ambitious set of pro-union and worker labor overhauls that passed the House last year but whose political fate is unclear in the closely divided Senate.

Jeff Stein contributed to this report.