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 anti-union tactics.

In mid-November organizers launched campaigns among two different sets of workers at, 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, it's management."

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.


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