Amazon uses cyberspace to counter union activity

Associated Press

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 do’s and don’t’s 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.

"So far, the employees have determined that they don’t want a union," Smith said.

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.

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.

Amazon, nurtured from a virtual idea by CEO Jeff Bezos, 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.

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

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