With the holiday shopping frenzy safely behind it, surprised both employees and stockholders on January 30 with the announcement of a 15 percent reduction in its work force, laying off of some 1,300 employees.

At first glance, Amazon's announcement simply looked like the latest in the flood of dot-com troubles. But union organizers are now charging that Amazon's timing is suspicious--the layoffs include the company's original customer service center in Seattle, which employs 400 people and is the heart of a union drive (see "Amazon Workers on the Move," January 8). Roughly 25 percent of the Seattle customer service representatives have signed union cards since October, citing concerns about job security, low wages and mandatory overtime.

The move to eliminate the Seattle center is strictly a cost-saving measure, according to Amazon, which recently announced a 44 percent increase in net sales from the same quarter in 1999. The company also denied that there is any relationship between the closure and the growing unionization effort, pointing instead to the high labor and real estate costs associated with operating the Seattle office.

Union organizers and the Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech) indicated they would ask the National Labor Relations Board to investigate whether the company targeted the Seattle employees because of their union activity.

In addition to the Seattle union drive, both the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Prewitt Organizing Fund, a labor group based in Washington, D.C., have spent the better part of the past year trying to unionize roughly 5,000 warehouse workers at Amazon's seven U.S. distribution centers. One of the centers in McDonough, Georgia will close by March 31.

Meanwhile, Amazon's plan to outsource customer service operations to New Delhi-based is underway. The Indian employees will be paid less than the U.S. minimum wage. According to WashTech, Amazon assured its Seattle employees that this decision would not result in layoffs.

According to Barclayo, Amazon has offered up to 12 weeks severance pay and $500 if employees stay on until May 4. Workers also can relocate to other customer service sites in North Dakota and West Virginia, but at lower wages. "I don't doubt that this generosity is in response to the efforts to unionize," Barclay says. "It's an attempt to save face so they can say they treated us well."


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