US: Amazon.com Fights Union Activity
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."
- 192 Technology & Telecommunications