Amazon.com workers begin union drive

Customer service workers at Amazon.com's Seattle headquarters have started a drive to form a union.

The workers hope to gather support from a majority of the 400 or so customer service representatives in Seattle. They hope to obtain union recognition and eventually a collective bargaining agreement.

Assisting the Amazon workers in their efforts is the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech. That group, a Seattle affiliate of the Communication Workers of America, gained notoriety during the 1990s for leading -- and winning -- several labor fights against Microsoft Corp.

With the holiday shopping season ramping up, the unionizing drive couldn't come at a worse time for Amazon. What's more, the drive also comes at a time when Amazon is under intense scrutiny. The company's prospects have been the subject of heated debate on Wall Street, its shares have taken a beating and its performance during this holiday season is seen as particularly critical.

The organizing workers have grievances on issues including job security, low wages and mandatory overtime, according to Marcus Courtney, co-founder of WashTech.

"They are very concerned about the continued expansion of customer service jobs in Grand Forks, N.D., and the outsourcing of jobs to India," Courtney said. "When it comes to issues of how the department is run, they have no effective voice. And they have enormous amounts of forced mandatory overtime during the holidays."

Amazon, for its part, maintains that a union isn't necessary.

"Unions certainly have a role in society, but we don't feel they are needed at Amazon, where everyone is an owner and can exercise their rights to raise workplace issues or concerns at any time," said Patty Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman. Smith said unionizing drives have been attempted twice before but failed each time to gain enough support.

Amazon will hold several "all hands" meetings in its customer service center throughout the day Friday to discuss the unionization effort, Smith said.

"It is an opportunity for everybody to ask questions," she added.

Nancy Becker, 35, who has worked for Amazon for two and a half years, said that during the holidays, customer service employees have been asked to work as much as 50 hours per week.

"If we are unable to meet that, our benefits get docked," says Becker, a single mother categorized as a second-tier customer service representative at the online retailing giant.

Smith said Amazon requires mandatory overtime for a group of about 50 workers and has had brief periods of mandatory overtime this past summer and last year during the holidays.

If the unionizing effort gains support and publicity this time around, it could hurt sales. At the very least, the situation could turn into a public-relations nightmare for the company.

"What makes this truly significant," Courtney says, "is that it shatters the myth that high-tech workers in the New Economy are not interested in representation on the job and that unions are irrelevant in the 21st century."

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