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Morning news brief

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And I'm Leila Fadel in Washington, D.C.

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has sacked the country's defense minister.

ESTRIN: The move comes after corruption scandals involving military contractors. It also comes near the end of a grinding and costly summer counteroffensive that so far has failed to bring major victories against Russia.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann is following developments in Kyiv and joins us now. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So this is being called the biggest shake-up in Kyiv since the Russia invasion. Why this shake-up now?

MANN: You know, Leila, in making this announcement, Zelenskyy wasn't specific about the timing, but he said change is needed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: He says there the current defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, served during the first 550 days of this war. Then Zelenskyy says, I believe the ministry needs new approaches and other forms of interaction with the military and society at large, so clearly acknowledging some of that public dissatisfaction.

FADEL: So new approaches. Let's talk about these corruption scandals. What were they?

MANN: There have been two big scandals here. Journalists and government investigators found numerous cases where military contractors were inflating the prices of food procured for the military, often charging two to three times the market price for basics like eggs and cabbages. And there's been evidence some defense ministry officials were involved in that scheme. The government's also investigating a large number of cases where men allegedly paid bribes to avoid military service.

Zelenskyy didn't blame Reznikov for those scandals, but he did make this announcement right after talking about the need for Ukraine to keep cleaning up corruption and implementing better policies to root out crooked officials.

FADEL: And who will replace Reznikov?

MANN: Well, this is interesting. Zelenskyy tapped a guy named Rustem Umerov. He's a member of parliament. He's also a Muslim Ukrainian, an ethnic Tatar with deep roots in Crimea.

FADEL: OK.

MANN: That's one of the regions occupied by Russia since 2014. Umerov's been involved in international negotiations surrounding the treatment of Tatars and Ukrainians living in occupied territories for years. Some of those talks apparently involved backchannel negotiations with Russians. He also took part in failed peace talks that happened right after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

I should say this appointment needs approval by Ukraine's parliament, but that's expected to be a formality.

FADEL: Very interesting. It may really signal a new approach here. As we mentioned, this change also comes near the end of the summer's big counteroffensive. Ukraine hoped to score big gains, pushing Russia back out of occupied lands in the east and south. But as we've mentioned, progress has been slow. Did that play into this decision?

MANN: Yeah. You know, everything here does ultimately come back to what's happening on the battlefield. Zelenskyy's been doing a lot of cheerleading lately, telling Ukrainians their army is gaining ground, promising that these sacrifices will pay off. But there's anxiety over the pace of the war and the huge loss of Ukrainian lives.

I spoke late yesterday with Oleksandr Shtupun, a spokesman for the unified military command, where most of the heavy fighting is happening. He said Ukraine is gaining ground, but slowly and at a steep price.

OLEKSANDR SHTUPUN: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "This isn't going to be an easy walk for our soldiers," Shtupun said. "The enemy's defensive structures are quite dense, and a large amount of ammunition is needed to destroy them."

So this is what Umerov's going to face when he takes over a situation where progress is really slow. And we are close now to the autumn rains that are going to turn this battlefield to mud, which means the chances for breakthroughs going forward will be even harder.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann with us from Kyiv. Thanks, Brian.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Global grain supplies are at stake in a meeting today between the leaders of Russia and Turkey.

ESTRIN: Yeah, Ukraine is among the world's top producers, but it faces Russia's invasion and a de facto sea blockade. For about a year, grain and fertilizer shipments were allowed to continue in a deal mediated by Turkey and the United Nations. In July, Russia canceled the deal, and now they're back at the table.

FADEL: NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul to discuss this. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hello.

FADEL: So why does Turkey play such an important role in this?

KENYON: Well, there's a few reasons. Geographically, Turkey has long seen itself as a regional power, one that follows its own path. For instance, Turkey never joined the international sanctions against Russia after it invaded Ukraine. Turkey continues with relatively good ties to Moscow. It's continued trade and other contacts. The Russian tourists are back in droves here. In addition, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has long sought to portray Turkey as a regional mediator. He took some credit for the agreement reached last year - the one Moscow pulled out of in July. So as things stand, Turkey remains a loyal, if sometimes difficult, NATO ally supporting a U.N. plan to ease this crisis while at the same time maintaining ties with Russia.

FADEL: I think the big question is, what's possible here? What does it seem like Russia wants, and what can Turkey and the West offer?

KENYON: Yes. Moscow has been quite clear about what it sees as the problematic implementation of this grain deal. Russia had high expectations that the deal would provide a big boost to its own agricultural and other exports, which had been curtailed by sanctions. But Russian officials have complained that even under the deal, sanctions against Russia engaging in certain financial transactions, other restrictions on shipping, insurance, things like that - they've continued. Some people point out that Russian exports are, in fact, quite a bit higher than they were when the deal kicked in. But that doesn't seem to be good enough for Russia.

FADEL: Now, we know this grain is vital for global food supply. So what happens if it and other commodities don't get moving again?

KENYON: Well, this grain deal has been a big benefit not just to Ukrainian grain farmers, but also to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The United Nations has called it a major success in reducing the spike in prices we saw at the beginning of the war. So should this deal somehow collapse, should Russia resume a tougher blockade of Ukrainian cargo ships in the Black Sea, experts say the prospect of food shortages in those regions would increase significantly.

And then beyond that, some wonder if this grain deal breaks down, what else could that trigger - a push for more sanctions against Moscow? Could Russia double down on its drive to occupy Ukraine or part of it? In that light, some analysts say a credible move to increase Russian exports beyond where they stand now could be seen as a sensible course of action. Others, of course, warn against appeasing Moscow. So we'll have to see how that plays out.

FADEL: So a lot at stake today, and a lot at stake for people who need these food supplies.

That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thank you so much for your reporting.

KENYON: Thanks, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: On this Labor Day, organized labor is on the move.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Corporate greed has got to go.

ESTRIN: Walking picket lines in Hollywood, signing up new members and in some cases celebrating wins at the bargaining table. Polls show public support for unions as close to its highest level in more than half a century. Organized labor still faces big obstacles, though. And for people who do not belong to a union, their bargaining power depends in large part on the overall health of the job market.

FADEL: We're going to spend a few minutes this morning talking about the state of labor with NPR's Andrea Hsu. Good morning, Andrea.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So during the pandemic, a lot of workers became newly interested in forming a union. And we've seen high-profile efforts to organize workers at Starbucks cafes, Amazon warehouses. So what's been the result?

HSU: Well, there has been a lot of organizing activity, but with mixed results. Workers petitioned for more than 2,500 union elections last year, the highest level in seven years. And it has slowed down a little bit this year. But last year, less than half of the union elections ended up in wins for the unions, and even fewer resulted in collective bargaining agreements, a union contract.

And, you know, Leila, unionizing efforts at Starbucks first got underway two years ago. Since then, more than 300 stores have unionized, but not one of them has a contract. And I think that is one reason we have seen some slowdown in new organizing at Starbucks - because baristas just aren't seeing that there's been much gain for all their efforts. And meanwhile, they have seen the lengths that the company has gone to to dissuade people from unionizing. We've seen baristas fired. Stores have been closed. And while this is illegal, the penalties are so minimal they don't seem to be a deterrent.

FADEL: So a big risk and not much of a reward, it sounds like, so far - a lot of roadblocks for those trying to form new unions.

HSU: Yeah.

FADEL: So what explains this continued enthusiasm?

HSU: Well, public perception of unions has shifted a lot in the last few years. Not only are unions popular again, but a new Gallup poll found 34% of respondents believe unions are getting more powerful. And that's a huge jump from just five years ago, when only 19% thought unions were gaining strength. And you can kind of see what's behind the shift. This summer alone, pilots won big raises. UPS drivers got what the Teamsters calls the most lucrative contract in UPS history.

And, of course, the Biden administration is happy about this. Workers are gaining not only historic raises, but also big quality-of-life improvements. Here's acting Labor Secretary Julie Su.

JULIE SU: I think that is continuing to inspire, you know, what people have called, like, a hot labor summer - right? - you know, workers standing up. And the more we see that, I think the more we will see the benefits of real worker power.

HSU: Yeah, we should point out, though, that now is the perfect time for unions to be putting up big demands, as these companies have been enjoying record profits. Unions have been feeling good about their wins, but how long their leverage lasts is unclear.

FADEL: The vast majority of workers in this country actually don't belong to a union. So what kind of leverage do nonunion workers have?

HSU: Yeah, 9 out of 10 workers in this country don't belong to unions. But the thing that workers all over the country have going for them right now is the strong job market. Unemployment did rise a little bit last month, but it's still very low. Employers are still adding jobs - 187,000 jobs in August. And competition for workers has pushed up wages, especially for low-wage workers. And all of that's good.

But, Leila, it's proving to be not really any match for the power of collective bargaining. The Treasury Department issued a report last week that found on average, unionized workers earn 10- to 15% more than workers who aren't part of a union, and they have better benefits. And, of course, as industries are undergoing so much change, workers who are unionized are more likely to have a say in how those changes are made. So whether it's the transition to electric vehicles or the adoption of AI, you know, these are all things being discussed in union negotiations going on right now. And by the way, that same Gallup poll I mentioned found broad support for the union workers in these negotiations.

FADEL: NPR's Andrea Hsu. Thanks, Andrea.

HSU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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