Online merchant trying to counter organizing efforts

Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2000

SEATTLE -- Online retailer is tackling efforts to organize its work force head-on in cyberspace, using e-mail to help its young managers counter union tactics and to spell out dos and don'ts for management.

Labor organizers are relatively new to e-business and many of Amazon's supervisory staff have never dealt with them before, company spokeswoman Patty Smith said Wednesday.

An in-house e-mail outlined in The New York Times ''was a handout for supervisors to help them respond to questions, to understand what they can and can't do,'' she said

The missive also provided tips to help managers spot the warning signs of union activism, such as ''small group huddles breaking up in silence on the approach of the supervisor,'' says an excerpt published in Wednesday's Times.

''We certainly have an obligation to present our point of view to employees, just as they are getting information from the union,'' Smith said.

This is the third time that unions have tried to organize during the holiday-season shopping rush, she said. The company began selling on the Internet in July 1995.

''So far, the employees have determined that they don't want a union,'' Smith said. ''We don't see how a union would benefit our employees, our customers, or the company as a whole.''

However, one labor organizer said unions may enable Amazon to keep its reputation for customer service.

''You can't maintain customer-service excellence without excellent customer-service reps, and they're literally driving them out the door,'' said Scott Buss, an employee who is helping efforts to organize his 400 Seattle-area colleagues by the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, a local of the Communication Workers of America.

''The e-commerce sector is growing up,'' Buss said. ''It's time for the people who helped establish these companies to be given some respect and even rewarded.''

He said customer-service reps at Amazon were willing to work for $10 to $13 an hour in the Seattle area in the hope their stock options would soar in value.

But as have many other Internet stocks, Amazon's share price has plummeted, from a high of $113 a share in the past year to a low of $19.37 1/2 last month. Its stock closed at $26.93 3/4, up $1.91 a share Wednesday on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

Apart from wages, Amazon's compensation package of stock options and health-insurance coverage is ''relatively decent,'' Buss said. But he said workers need a contract to address concerns about mandatory overtime, the lack of holiday time off, low job security and short-notice shift changes.

''Every year the company does reviews of salary and compensation and makes adjustments that it believes are necessary,'' Smith said.

''We have always prided ourselves on the level of dialogue we have with employees,'' she said.

Mandatory overtime is standard in retail, especially at the peak of the holiday buying season, Smith said. Workers get time and a half for working holidays, plus an additional paid vacation day.

Smith said she did not have average-wage figures for Amazon workers, but the company is ''certainly competitive with the communities in which we have facilities.''

Amazon employs about 7,500 people worldwide. About 1,000 are customer-service reps in Seattle and nearby Tacoma; Huntington, W.Va.; Grand Forks, N.D., and in Germany, England, Holland and Japan.

Buss said a customer-service rep in Grand Forks earns less than his or her Seattle counterpart, which prompts the concerns about job security -- ''That our job could be transferred to Grand Forks without us.''

The union is focusing on the Seattle shop, Buss said. If the effort here is successful, presumably those elsewhere ''will follow our lead.''

Efforts are under way by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the nonprofit Prewitt Organizing Fund to organize the bulk of Amazon's work force, at its eight distribution centers in Seattle; Lexington and Campbellsville, Ky.; Grand Forks, N.D.; McDonough, Ga.; Coffeyville, Kan.; Sernley, Nev.; and New Castle, Del.

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