E-Commerce Looks at a Union Label

The great thing about American industry is that it only takes one courageous, motivated individual to start a revolution. If you have several courageous, motivated individuals, so much the better.

When employees of Etown.com, an electronics content site, decided to organize a vote for unionization, a number of e-commerce executives around the country woke up from their slumbers. If ever you want to shake up the big boys in American industry, just mention the words “organize” and “union.”

And if you want to make some sensational headlines, mention those words in the context of an industry powerhouse. A union at Amazon.com? Now that makes for some hot type. After all, the under-informed might wonder how one of the most successful online companies could let union fever reach its employees.

And yet, the answer is so simple. The bigger the company, the smaller its employees sometimes feel.

New Stage, Old Plot

The unanswered question regarding Amazon’s layoffs is: Exactly how many of those receiving pink slips were the employees of the Amazon customer service center that have been floating those magic words, “organize” and “union”?

One noteworthy (some might say notorious) development was that Amazon originally said it would offer the company’s displaced personnel an unprecedented severance package of six weeks pay, plus an extra US$500 and stock perks — if they will just sign one little 15-page agreement not to say nasty things about Amazon.com. Following widespread outcry over the requirement, Amazon backed down and told former employees they could cross out that clause.

Is the New Economy suddenly nothing more than a remake of the old economy’s worst B-movie?

Paging Norma Rae

If you’ve ever been involved in an effort to unionize, you know the next thing that happens is that the owners/managers/decision-makers in the company try to become your best friends. The guys who never acknowledged your presence in the building suddenly want your input on company policies. Suddenly you’re visible.

Why? Because employers know their power base is on shaky ground. With many dot-coms holding on by a thread — with the Feds whispering “recession” in our ears — union organizers will most likely take full advantage of the moment.

This is the prototypical golden moment that organizers hunger for.Insecure dot-com workers plus unbalanced economy equals showtime for unions.

The most cynical among us might say Bezos sold his underlings a bill of goods that included low wages and the promise of a big stock payoff down the road — the “pay your dues and you’ll find the pot of gold” routine. It hasn’t happened, and now employees are mad.

Hollow Innovation

Bezos and others in the e-commerce arena have to acknowledge that the basic needs of American workers — livable wages, health insurance, a benefit package that ensures future financial security, and most of all, respect — do not change just because a company is online, not offline.

Those who have emerged as leaders in the New Economy have placed much emphasis on innovation simply for the sake of change. More substantive innovation would have included an understanding that what has worked in offline American industry for years was worth keeping.

If Mr. Bezos knows what is good for him, he will personally run interference right now, sit down with the soon-to-be-displaced customer service workers and try to make nice.

Why? Because Seattle is only ground zero in a potential dot-com union explosion.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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