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Biden talks unions ahead of Amazon vote in Alabama

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President Joe Biden released a video over the weekend discussing his support for the right of workers to unionize, ahead of a vote by workers at an Amazon facility in Alabama on unionizing. CBS News chief White House correspondent Nancy Cordes joins "CBSN AM" to talk about the significance of the message.

Video Transcript

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Amazon workers at a facility in Alabama are in the middle of a vote on whether or not to unionize. It's a process that's drawing national attention and even President Biden, who released a video over the weekend. And he's weighing in on it. Nancy Cordes is following this from the White House. Nancy, we talked about this yesterday. The significance of having the president weigh in on an issue as to whether or not these Amazon workers should be unionizing. How significant is this?

NANCY CORDES: It's very unusual, Anne-Marie, because while many Democrats are of course pro-union, most presidents from both parties tend to stay out of specific labor fights, particularly those involving one of the nation's largest companies.

JOE BIDEN: The choice to join a union is up to the workers, full stop.

NANCY CORDES: In the two minute video, there was only one state President Biden mentioned by name.

JOE BIDEN: Workers in Alabama, and all across America, are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace.

NANCY CORDES: Bessemer, Alabama is home to an Amazon warehouse where about 6,000 employees are voting, right now, on whether to form the internet giant's first union in the US. It's a bitter battle.

JENNIFER BATES: Amazon doesn't treat their employees like people. We're treated like we're robots.

NANCY CORDES: Warehouse employees, like Jennifer Bates, constantly get texts from Amazon, warning that union dues could leave them with less money than they already have. Anti-union fliers are even posted inside warehouse bathroom stalls.

JOE BIDEN: There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.

NANCY CORDES: Amazon didn't respond to our request for comment, but in a previous statement to Reuters, it said, "We don't believe the union represents the majority of our employees' views. Our employees chose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available." But more than 2,000 workers indicated that they were interested in joining a union, which is what triggered this vote. The White House insists the president was simply showing support for all unions.

JEN PSAKI: We don't comment on specific cases.

NANCY CORDES: But union officials say his message was clear.

STUART APPELBAUM: For the workers at the warehouse in Alabama, there is no question that President Biden was speaking to them.

NANCY CORDES: Stuart Appelbaum is the president of the retail, wholesale, and department store union.

STUART APPELBAUM: The importance of the video is that it's telling workers that no matter how much your employer is trying to intimidate you, no matter how powerful your employer may be, the President of the United States has your back.

NANCY CORDES: Presidents traditionally take pains not to wade into union disputes, but Mr. Biden campaigned on a very clear platform.

JOE BIDEN: I made it clear to the corporate leaders. I said, I want you to know I'm a union guy.

NANCY CORDES: Now, one important note on the timing of all this-- this is the week when President Biden's proposed minimum wage hike is officially falling apart on Capitol Hill, at least for right now. And there are some progressives who are frustrated, who wish that he had fought harder. And so that may be part of the reason the president decided to come out now, show solidarity with these workers, and remind American workers that he is on their side, Anne-Marie.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So we saw in your piece, there, the president talking about his support while he was campaigning for unions. Clearly he is supportive of these workers there in Alabama. Why is ensuring union support important to the president politically? I'm thinking back to when President Trump won the election, it sort of signified a bit of a shift. Because Democrats often enjoy the support of unions, but during the previous campaign-- not the last one, the one before-- we saw something happen. We saw a lot of union members support Donald Trump instead.

NANCY CORDES: Right. Well, first of all, I think it's very important to President Biden's political identity, his personal identity. He is someone, who throughout his many decades in public service, has really identified with union workers. He is Scranton Joe. He really has gotten a lot of support from unions over the years and made it clear, all throughout the campaign, that he was going to have their back when he came to the White House. So they're a very important constituency for him. They do a lot of organizing for him and of course, for Democrats, more broadly. So politically, it's important for him to keep them in the fold.

Beyond that though, a lot of the things that he wants to do are going to depend on union support. He needs the support of the teachers' unions, for example. He wants to get kids back to school very aggressively. Some teachers' unions have had a more cautious approach. He wants to make big changes to the immigration system, big changes to the infrastructure system. All of those have union components and he will need those unions to remain on his side.

Beyond that, he is struggling to get one of his biggest early initiatives passed, which is a promise to dramatically hike the federal minimum wage. Doesn't mean that he can't try again after the fight over this COVID Relief Bill has passed, but it does mean that one of his early promises is not going to be kept, at least for now. And so he is trying to send a message to unions and their progressive allies-- hey, I'm not giving up on this fight. I still have your back. It's just going to take a little longer than we had hoped.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So speaking of that federal minimum wage hike, it's not going to be included in the stimulus package. So, then, what are the options moving forward? How could the president get this done?

NANCY CORDES: So there are a few different options. First of all, interestingly, there are now some Republicans who are pushing for a federal minimum wage hike, as well. So there is the potential that they could do a standalone minimum wage hike, not as part of this COVID relief package, but down the road. Maybe not hike it to $15 an hour all at once. Maybe, they would go up gradually, maybe start at $11 an hour. So that is a very real possibility.

And now that Democrats control the House and the Senate, if they wanted to bring something like that to the floor of the Senate-- even if it doesn't have the support of a majority of Republicans-- if they can pick off, let's say, 10 Republicans in the Senate, they could pass that minimum wage hike. If they have some Republican support, but not enough to get to 60, that's where things get really difficult. Because we've already seen that the Senate Parliamentarian has ruled, you can't do this using reconciliation, this budget process that enables you to pass a bill with just 51 votes.

And so that is, then, going to spark another round of debate about getting rid of the filibuster, which is such a big thorn in the Democratic side right now because it requires them to get 60 votes on all of their policy provisions. There will be progressives who argue, look, this is broadly popular in the country. And yet Republicans in Congress are standing in the way. We should get rid of the filibuster so we can more easily pass our agenda.

But of course, there are Democrats-- principally, Joe Manchin, who is going to stand in the way of this, a Democrat, a moderate from West Virginia-- who will say this is going to come back to bite us when we're in the minority so we shouldn't do it. So that is going to be another big fight that we are going to see play out time and time again over the next couple of years, Anne-Marie.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So then, in the meantime, of course, we have the Economic Relief Bill. The Senate is going to be taking a look at it. What is the president doing to close the deal, to get this done? They want to get it done before the unemployment supplement runs out and people find themselves with much smaller checks.

NANCY CORDES: Right. He is sitting down with various groups of Democrats. He is going to be speaking with more Senate Democrats today. He is going to be speaking with House Democrats tomorrow. There is an ongoing effort to try to address some Republican concerns, but the reality right now is that there is no fixed Republican support for this bill.

So the lobbying effort is more targeted right now towards Democrats, making sure that they keep their entire coalition together so that they can get the votes they need in the House and the Senate for this package. It is a very narrow split, right now, between Democrats and Republicans in both houses. So he has to make sure that Democrats in the House don't defect, progressives who are disappointed that a minimum wage hike is no longer part of this bill-- he needs to keep them all on board.

In the Senate, he needs to keep moderates on board who worry about the overall price tag, $1.9 trillion and whether all that money is really necessary. So it is a very small needle to thread right now. But they've got to keep the entire party unified if they want to pass this bill, and pass it quickly before those federal unemployment benefits run out, as you mentioned, in a couple of weeks.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Indeed. Nancy, thank you so much.

NANCY CORDES: You're welcome.