To many workers, the "new economy" is starting to look a lot like
the old one. With once high-flying Internet companies crashing earthward
and Wall Street pressuring them to show profits, entrepreneurs who
promised a revolutionized workplace and stock-option riches for
all have turned into tough-minded bean-counters looking for ways
to shave costs at the expense of employees. That has prompted some
new economy workers to think about organizing themselves into unions.
In turn, the barons of the new economy are responding with classic
In mid-November organizers launched campaigns among two different
sets of workers at Amazon.com, the premier Internet retailer. The
experience of Amazon workers in Seattle, who are organizing with
the assistance of WashTech,
an innovative Communications Workers local, demonstrates the limits
of the Internet as a source of high-skill jobs in a global economy
that has relocated much manufacturing to lower-wage havens.
There had been little pro-union activity at most Internet companies.
Their often youthful workers saw themselves catching a new economic
wave that they could surf to quick fortunes while working in a casual
setting with computer technologies. But working in an Amazon warehouse
or being a customer service representative is not much different
from other warehouse or customer relations jobs. Indeed, these "e-commerce"
jobs often offer lower and less stable incomes and impose more demanding
and unpredictable routines than their conventional equivalents.
One middle-aged warehouse employee in Kansas--call him Ralph, since
he fears using his real name after the company threatened to fire
a co-worker if he ever mentioned the word "union" again--had worked
at an electrical equipment factory for many years until it moved
to Mexico last year. He previously had earned more than $13 an hour,
but Amazon pays him less than $10, and he has endured mandatory
schedules of 50 to 60 hours a week around Christmas as well as periods
in the summer when he was lucky to work 20 hours a week. Since Amazon's
stock price has plummeted, his stock options--like those of most
workers hired in the past year and a half--are worthless. "I'm a
hard worker," Ralph says. "But what they want is damn ridiculous
for the pay and the hours."
In Amazon's hometown of Seattle, college-educated workers like
23-year-old Susan--again, she asked that her real name not be used--work
as customer service representatives for around $13 an hour (with
starting pay at $11). She came to Amazon seduced by the Internet
hype and by seeing "a lot of my friends who'd been there for years
who were millionaires." But like other customer service representatives,
she is upset not simply by the worthless options and inadequate
pay, but also with the continued bonuses to top executives that
contrast starkly with the customer service representatives' $50
Christmas bonus--down from $200 last year--in the form of a taxable
Amazon gift certificate. She's also distressed with mandatory overtime,
declining professionalism, low morale and the "constant fight between
productivity and quality," with quality losing out "because higher-ups
want to see numbers before anything else."
Jobs in Seattle are threatened not only by new, lower-wage service
centers in West Virginia and North Dakota, but also by Amazon's
opening earlier this year of an e-mail service center in India,
staffed in collaboration with an Indian firm by highly educated
workers paid less than one-tenth the Seattle wage. Amazon has already
shifted most warehouse work from locations like Seattle to smaller
cities in Kansas, Kentucky and Nevada, where prevailing wages are
lower and, in at least two cases, big factories recently shut down
and moved overseas.
WashTech had a low-level presence at Amazon for the past couple
of years, but new insecurity, job pressures and management unresponsiveness
to workers' suggestions triggered a movement among the more than
400 customer service representatives, according to WashTech organizer
Marcus Courtney. "These people are organizing because they're committed
to the company and its future success," he says, "but they feel
they need a true representative voice so they can deliver the quality
of service necessary for Amazon to be profitable in the future."
Amazon has responded to the organizing drive by offering some perks--such
as rescinding a charge for massages provided to overstressed workers--and
by holding anti-union meetings. Despite fears of retaliation, this
strategy appears to have backfired. "I love the company, but they're
making bad decisions," says Scott Alan Buss, a self-described right-winger
who initially opposed the union. "They are a cutting-edge e-company
and also a throwback to old 1930s anti-unionism. They keep trying
to label the union movement as an evil outside force, when this
entire movement is driven 100 percent from inside. If anyone is
to blame for someone like me being out there supporting a union,
Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos argues that his "associates" don't need
a union because they are owners. But that hasn't stopped Amazon
from resorting to conventional corporate tactics--attacking unions
as "for-profit businesses" that foment conflict among workers, eliminate
employee individuality and may deliver less in a contract than workers
have now. WashTech pressure did force Amazon to back off its demand
that customer service representatives send an anti-union message
to customers who inquire about the organizing campaign.
Meanwhile, organizers are also at work among the roughly 5,000
full-time Amazon warehouse employees (now swelled to as many as
three times that number for the annual holiday rush, according to
organizer estimates). The Prewitt Organizing Fund, an independent
group that works for various unions, began exploring possibilities
at Amazon a year ago. Prewitt President Duane Stillwell says that
from the beginning they envisioned attempting to organize all Amazon
distribution centers in the United States in one coordinated effort,
exploiting the potential of disrupting Amazon's crucial Christmas
season to win union recognition. Unions in Germany, France and England
are now also working with Prewitt on organizing Amazon distribution
center workers there.
Prewitt organizers had been cooperating with the United Food and
Commercial Workers over the summer. But just before the mid-November
launch, the UFCW cut off its relationship with Prewitt. UFCW spokesman
Greg Denier cites disagreement over contract terms and the union's
post- election anger that Stillwell had signed a "labor for Nader"
ad. Although the UFCW leafleted some plants and says it is organizing
Amazon centers on its own, Prewitt organizers say that they have
seen no UFCW organizers working since the initial leafleting.
Without a formal union partner, Prewitt's promising start at Amazon
could be greatly hampered at the start of a major labor foray into
the new economy, just as one of its leading businesses demonstrates
to their employees many of the bad habits of the old.