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Friday, November 17, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Labor targets Amazon.com

Seattle Times Washington bureau

ORGANIZING DRIVES are under way in Seattle and across the country in the hopes of catching the No. 1 online retailer at its most vulnerable moment: the holidays.

As the holidays approach, labor organizers are kicking off organizing drives at Amazon.com customer-service and distribution centers across the country, hoping that the prospect of disruptions during the crucial retail season for online retailers will compel the company to meet workers' demands.

A local affiliate of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) is targeting about 400 customer-service workers in the Seattle area, while the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and a small nonprofit called the Prewitt Organizing Fund are each focusing on Amazon.com's seven distribution warehouses, from Nevada to Delaware.

"We think it's a unique opportunity to impact working conditions in the Internet retail economy," said Duane Stillwell of the Prewitt fund. "And, obviously, as Amazon goes, so go the practices in that industry."

Amazon.com sales were up 79 percent in the third quarter this year, to $637.9 million, and founder Jeff Bezos has said the company, which has yet to turn a profit, has high hopes for the holiday shopping season. The company posted an $89 million pro forma loss during the quarter, which saw marketing and sales expenses rise.

Company officials have circulated internal e-mail, coached supervisors on how to discourage workers from embracing a union and scheduled group meetings for today to "discuss union organizing efforts."

"The unionization efforts of the customer-service center in Seattle is not anything new; it happened right around this time last year, and it may go back further to 1998," said Patty Smith, Amazon.com spokeswoman. "Obviously, unions have a role in society, but we don't feel that they are right at Amazon, where everyone is an owner and can exercise their individual right to raise workplace issues at any time."

Smith said she wasn't aware of the internal e-mail, but said Amazon.com will be holding three companywide question-and-answer sessions today in response to the unionization efforts. It is a voluntary meeting, and all those attending will be compensated for their time.

The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), a local affiliate of CWA, has been meeting with customer-service workers in the Seattle area for nearly two years to gauge interest in forming a union.

While organizers were received coolly at first, workers and labor officials say the plummeting value of stock options, scheduling demands and job-security concerns have created a more hospitable environment for labor.

Customer-service representative Scott Alan Buss, who telecommutes from Mukilteo, said he had a "knee-jerk negative reaction to unionism" when he joined Amazon.com two years ago.

Now Buss is one of a core of 30 Amazon.com workers cooperating with WashTech to recruit his colleagues.

He said that, like many of his colleagues, he was motivated by concerns about job security and a belief that he should be making more than $13 an hour, given that the company stakes much of its reputation on customer service.

Amazon.com operates a customer-service center in North Dakota and recently opened another center in India, raising fears that jobs could be shifted away from Seattle to low-wage areas.

"We'd like to think that there would be some sort of loyalty," Buss said.

Marcus Courtney of WashTech said the final decision to launch a public organizing drive was made Wednesday night by workers who began asking colleagues to sign union cards yesterday.

Courtney said the customer-service workers weren't threatening to walk off the job, but they hoped to achieve recognition of their union by Christmas and that the holidays would make the company think twice about taking any steps against active union supporters.

"Amazon needs to have a successful season," he said, "and in order to meet their demands during the Christmas season they have to have a fully manned and operational customer-service center."

Stillwell, former organizing director at the Laborers' International Union of North America and now a consultant to several major unions, formed the Prewitt fund last year to be "the Red Cross for workers," enlisting union organizers to help workers form their own organizations or affiliate with existing unions.

In the fund's first drive, its activists have been working since May to develop networks inside Amazon.com's distribution centers in Fernley, Nev.; Coffeyville, Kan.; Campbellsville, Ky.; Lexington, Ky.; McDonough, Ga.; and New Castle, Del. They also have formed alliances with unions in Europe that plan to leaflet Amazon.com sites in Germany and France.

The Prewitt activists developed a list of principles to answer concerns raised by about 100 workers contacted so far, including scheduling demands during the holidays, good wages instead of "stock scams," and premium pay for mandatory overtime.

Thirty volunteer labor organizers plan a "blitz" to contact 1,000 workers over the weekend to ask them to sign the statement of principles and demand that the company "allow workers to quickly and peacefully form or choose a union of their design."

"There is no question that the people on the front lines of the industry have been left out of the riches and the leisure of the Internet," said Stillwell.

As opposed to a traditional long-term and resource-intensive union drive, the fund is hoping to use the leverage of the holidays and a quick mobilization of workers to persuade the company to accept relatively modest demands.

"There's no question that this is a particularly tough time of the year for Amazon," Stillwell said. "We're obligated as the Prewitt Organizing Fund to tell workers to act when they have the greatest leverage."

Bob Muehlenkamp, the former organizing director at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said he signed on to Stillwell's effort because traditional union drives have failed to significantly strengthen labor's hand. Labor represents only about 13 percent of the work force.

"I'm very open to almost anything outside that box," he said, adding that organizing drives in the Internet realm, while still rare, were showing what happens to people in the New Economy.

Not everyone in labor agrees.

The WashTech drive moved into its public phase, in part, because the Prewitt campaign's plans to hold a news conference next week could have complicated its own efforts at Amazon.com.

And Stillwell and the UFCW broke off discussions about cooperating on the project last week and now are appealing to the same distribution workers.

UFCW spokesman Greg Denier said the union began leafletting Amazon.com's distribution centers this week as a natural outgrowth of its successful drives to organize online grocers, such as Peapod.com.

"With our success in organizing online grocers, it made sense for us to look at Amazon.com," he said, "particularly because workers at Amazon.com were expressing interest in having a voice in the workplace and expressing a lot of concerns about the treatment at Amazon.com."

Seattle Times business reporter Tricia Duryee contributed to this story.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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