US: Amazon.com Fights Union Activity

Publisher Name: 
New York Times

Amazon.com has come out swinging in its fight to stop a
new unionization drive, telling employees that unions are a
greedy, for-profit business and advising managers on ways to
detect when a group of workers is trying to back a union.

A section on Amazon's internal Web site gives supervisors
anti-union material to pass on to employees, saying that
unions mean strife and possible strikes and that while
unions are certain to charge expensive dues, they cannot
guarantee improved wages or benefits.

The Web site advises managers on warning signs that a union
is trying to organize. Among the signs that Amazon notes are
"hushed conversations when you approach which have not
occurred before," and "small group huddles breaking up
in silence on the approach of the supervisor."

Other warning signs, according to the site, are an increase
in complaints, a decrease in quality of work, growing
aggressiveness and dawdling in the lunchroom and restrooms.

Amazon, one of the leaders in electronic retailing, has
stepped up its anti-union activities the last week after
two unions and an independent organizing group announced
plans to speed efforts to unionize Amazon during the holiday
e-shopping rush. The organizing drive is the most ambitious
one ever undertaken in the high- technology sector, where
the nation's labor movement has yet to establish a foothold.

The Communications Workers of America has undertaken a
campaign to unionize 400 customer-service representatives in
Seattle, where Amazon is based. The United Food and Commercial
Workers Union and the Prewitt Organizing Fund, an independent
organizing group, are seeking to unionize some 5,000 workers
at Amazon's eight distribution centers across the country.
The unionization drive has gained momentum because many
workers are upset about layoffs at Amazon last January and
about the sharp drop in the value of their stock options.

One chapter on Amazon's internal Web site, which provides
a rare internal glimpse at how a company is fighting off a
union, is headlined, "Reasons a Union is Not Desirable."

"Unions actively foster distrust toward supervisors," the
Web site says. "They also create an uncooperative attitude
among associates by leading them to think they are
`untouchable' with a union."

The Web site, which calls the company's workers associates,
adds: "Unions limit associate incentives. Merit increases
are contrary to union philosophy."

A union supporter who insisted on anonymity and acknowledged
seeking to embarrass the company over its antiunion campaign
made a copy of the Web site material available to The New
York Times. Amazon officials confirmed that the material
came from the company's Web site.

Patty Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman, said the main purpose of
the Web site material was to tell supervisors what they can
do to oppose a union and what actions by managers violate
laws barring retaliation against workers who support
unionization.

For instance, the Web site said supervisors could tell
workers that the company preferred to deal with them
directly, rather than through an outside organization.

It also said supervisors could tell workers about the
benefits they enjoy. As for the don'ts, the Web site warns
supervisors not to threaten workers with firings or reduce
income or discontinue any privileges to any union supporter.

Ms. Smith declined to name the lawyers the company had hired
to work on the material.

Union leaders said in interviews yesterday that their
organizing drive was going somewhat worse than they had
expected largely because of the unexpected aggressiveness
of Amazon's anti-union efforts. Over the last two weeks,
managers have held a half-dozen "all hands" meetings for
customer service workers in Seattle, where managers have
argued how unionizing would be bad for Amazon.

Marcus Courtney, co-founder of the Washington Alliance of
Technological Workers, an affiliate of the communications
workers' union, said, "This shows how Amazon, despite its
public statements that this is a decision we let our
employees make themselves and we trust them to make the
right decisions, all these meetings and the internal Web
site and their manuals show that Amazon management is trying
to take this basic democratic decision away from the workers
and make it themselves."

Ms. Smith denied that the company was not letting workers
make up their own minds. "We hired intelligent and dedicated
employees, and we trust them to make decisions about what's
best for their future," she said. "But obviously we don't
believe a union is best for their future or our customers."

In large, bold letters, the Web site tells supervisors: "A
union promotes and thrives upon problems between supervisors
and employees. Front-line supervisors who deal effectively
with associate problems avoid associates believing they need
a union."

Duane Stillwell, president of the Prewitt Organizing Fund,
said: "It's unfortunate that this vaunted high-tech company
is just saying the same crude things that factory owners
have been saying for 100 years about unions. They're just
scaring people out of wanting to do the right thing."

AMP Section Name:Labor
  • 192 Technology & Telecommunications