Amazon Backtracks on Gag Rule for Layoffs

With pressure building from union organizers and with a potential public relations blunder at hand, told laid-off hourly employees Thursday that they would not have to pledge to keep quiet about the company in order to receive a better severance deal.

The change of policy was announced to workers in an e-mail Thursday.

The non-disparagement clause is in a 15-page agreement that 1,300 laid-off Amazon employees were asked to sign in order to qualify for an augmented severance package that includes extra pay and a US$500 bonus.

“We’d have been very unlikely to enforce this provision anyway, so it doesn’t make sense to ask you to sign it,” Amazon vice president Bill Price said in the e-mail.

Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith told the E-Commerce Times the decision came after employees raised questions, and was not due to efforts by the Washington Alliance of Technical Workers, known as WashTech, to use the clause as leverage in its long-standing bid to organize customer service workers at the Seattle, Washington e-tailer.

“Our employees were raising concerns directly to us,” Smith said. “We listened and we acted accordingly.”

Hourly Workers Exempt

Hourly employees have been told they can cross out the non-disparagement clause in the agreement, which includes non-competition and confidentiality pledges. However, corporate staff still must sign the agreement in order to get a better severance deal.

The layoffs at Amazon, announced as the company warned that sales would slow but that profitability is now within sight, have become a flashpoint for union activists.

WashTech earlier called for a formal investigation into why the cuts were aimed at the customer service department, where 400 workers have been the focus of a union drive, called Day2, for nearly three years.

Focus on Profits

The e-tail giant is in the midst of a massive restructuring of its business as it looks to reach profitability by the end of the year.

In addition to the layoffs, Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos has reportedly sent an internal, company-wide e-mail to employees describing a strategy to stop selling products that are not profitable, according to published reports.

Bezo also told employees that the company is going to work on boosting its core book business, reports said.

Unions Gain Momentum

Meanwhile, union organizing activity is heating on other fronts within the dot-com world, with some efforts apparently getting a boost from the frenzied pace of layoffs in recent months.

A San Francisco, California union has now dropped both of its unfair labor practices complaints against and its parent, Collaborative Media, Inc. A vote on whether to establish a union at the company will now proceed. The vote had been delayed by charges that Etown had acted unfairly in suggesting that unionizing the shop would harm its business and possibly force the company to shut down.

Other unions are making charges that Webvan Group is frustrating their attempts to organize workers.

The Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers filed a National Labor Relations Board grievance this week, charging that Webvan illegally restricts organizing activities. At issue are personnel policies prohibiting employees from wearing pro-union buttons and restricting their ability to communicate and hold union meetings.

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