Union Activists Target Amazon Workers

Hoping to use the frantic and critical holiday season as leverage, labor organizers said Thursday they are making their strongest push to date to unionize workers at online e-tail giant Amazon.com.

More than 400 Seattle, Washington-based customer service reps have begun gathering signatures on union petitions in order to build majority support for union recognition and ultimately a collective bargaining agreement.

Alan Barclay, a two-year customer service representative and leader in the union drive, told the E-Commerce Times that the reps want Amazon to be successful, but need their issues addressed.

“We all started out believing in the company and believing we were treated as participants in building it,” Barclay said. “But over the past year anda half, there’s been no real response or effective addressing of our concerns. At this point, it looks like we’re no longer being included in their processes, and we don’t feel we’ve recently had the ear of management.”

The Big Prize

The effort mainly targets customer service employees working at Amazon headquarters in Seattle, but also focuses on distribution and warehouse workers in other parts of the United States.

Labor activists admit they have targeted Amazon in part because the bellwether e-tailer is a key linchpin to any future efforts to bring organized labor into the Internet economy.

“This campaign should end the myths that high-tech workers in the new economy do not want to seek representation on the job, and that unions are irrelevant in the 21st century,” said Marcus Courtney, an organizer with the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), the local unit of the Communication Workers of America (CWA).

Growth Leads to Discontent

Courtney said the effort was the first he knew of to unionize workers inside a dot-com. Wednesday night, 54 service reps met with WashTech to create a mission statement for the proposed union.

Employees are saying that Amazon’s continued expansion has added pressure to what was a tense workplace to begin with.

“Mandatory overtime, no time off during the holidays and sudden shift schedules with no notice are key issues on why we want to seek recognition,” Amazon employee J.J. Wandler said.

Effect on Customer Service

According to the new mission statement, workers feel that if their concerns are not addressed, the quality of service delivered to customers will decline.

“Quality customer service requires professional well-trained individuals that have job security, compensation that reflects our skills and commitment to the company, respect, career development opportunities, continued education and a voice,” the mission statement reads. “Amazon.com cannot sustain the standard of excellence that it has attained with anything less than a true commitment to these core values.”

Layoffs eliminated two percent of the company’s jobs in the past year, even as the workforce in certain departments increased. Additionally, the union is fretting over an announcement in early September in which Amazon said it had struck a partnership with Daksh.com, a customer support company based in India.

Starting pay is US$10 an hour for the representatives, which union members say is not enough to live on in the Seattle region.

Civility So Far

Union activists first approached Amazon workers two years ago.

“It’s not the first time they have tried to organize. It’s nothing new,” Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith said in a published report. “We don’t have unions at Amazon and don’t really need them. Every employee is an owner at Amazon, since they own stock and can exercise their right to raise workplace issues or concerns at any time.”

Dropping stock prices and widespread concern about the fate of all dot-coms has changed the mood of many workers, according to labor organizers, who added that Amazon is responding to its efforts, circulating e-mail to employees and calling for group meetings Friday to discuss the move.

Timing Is Everything

Barclay told the E-Commerce Times that there are other professionals within Amazon who have contracts. However, Barclay said the customer service representatives realize a contract could take a long time to hammer out, and they hope to work with management in the interim.

“We would like the same feelings of security so we can dedicate ourselves to enthusiastically meet the goals of the company,” Barclay said.

Clearly, this push comes at a crucial time for Amazon, which is hoping to use the holiday season to cap its revenue growth for the year.

Warehouses Targeted

In addition to targeting customer service employees, other organizers hope to bring workers at Amazon’s far-flung distribution operations into the fold.

“We think it’s a unique opportunity to impact working conditions in the Internet retail economy,” Duane Stillwell, an activist with the Prewitt Fund, a group that is trying to bring those workers into the union fold, told the Seattle Times. “Obviously, as Amazon goes, so go the practices in that industry.”

Labor’s Role in New Economy

While no e-commerce companies have been successfully organized to date, new technology has been the focal point of several recent high-profile strikes.

A lengthy work stoppage at Verizon Communications focused largely on whether the union would be recognized as more work moved into the wireless arena, and a strike by Hollywood commercial actors was settled only when an agreement was reached extending union coverage to advertisements made for the Internet.

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