Look For The Union Label Online? - InformationWeek

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Look For The Union Label Online?

Recent employee disputes at consumer-electronics site Etown.com and retailer Amazon.com Inc. are highlighting labor problems in the dot-com world and raising questions as to how to best deal with unionization. Unions are rare at tech firms largely because lucrative stock options and high rates of employment have generally kept employees happy, but with the Nasdaq dogging it and IPOs being postponed, employees are rethinking their options.

"You're starting to see people in these jobs seeing what a union voice can accomplish," says a spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America. Tech company employees are increasingly concerned with inflexible scheduling, forced overtime, and high turnover rates, she says, and they hope to find help in labor unions.

On Monday, employees in the customer-service department at Etown submitted a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to vote on union representation, potentially making them the first dot-com workers to unionize. Meanwhile, the Communications Workers of America has started a campaign to unionize 400 customer-service representatives in Amazon's Seattle headquarters, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union is trying to rally 5,000 workers at Amazon's eight national distribution centers.

The trouble began at Etown when employees tried to talk to management about training improvements they thought were needed, says Erin Tyson Poh, a local representative of the Northern California Media Workers Guild, which is representing the employees. Management was unresponsive, she says, and when employees began organizing, Etown started firing workers.

That reaction isn't uncommon, says the Communications Workers of America spokeswoman. "More often than not, there's a complete resistance to employees who try to organize," she says. "Companies have a lot of tools to use; they'll fire people, they'll switch shifts, they'll have supervisors talk to employees one on one."

Union reps say tech businesses need to recognize how they can benefit from unionizing. "This can be a very positive force for any business," Poh says. "It doesn't have to mean that you're constantly battling, and it gives management a voice as well." The Communications Workers of America spokeswoman says union employees raise productivity levels, and that many businesses credit union labor for their success. "Workers want their companies to succeed," she says, "but they also want to have a say."

Spokesmen for Amazon and Etown did not return requests for comment.

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