A ‘No’ Vote for Dot-Com Unions

A union at Amazon.com? Or for that matter, at eTown.com? The suggestion itself seems strangely anachronistic, a throwback to the days when unions served a valuable purpose, when the workers they represented were truly being taken advantage of, forced to work endless hours without overtime or placed in danger by the nature of their work.

It seems strange because it is strange. Strange and just plain wrong. One of the employees pushing a union made the point himself the other day, when he said that customer service workers took their relatively low salaries because of the stock options that came with the job.

That’s right. These workers who want a union get stock options. It’s part of their compensation package, just like everyone else in the company. And guess what? Some of them are not too happy that the difference between their option price and the market value isn’t quite as pretty as it was eight months ago.

Just Scraping By

So what to do? Stand by your employer and grind through hard times? Search for a better job, a place where salary is higher and stock options optional? No, let’s unionize instead.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic with the need to address cost-of-living increases. Seattle, like so many U.S. cities, just isn’t a place where you can live on the hourly wage of US$10.

But the proposed remedy is just too damaging, with too many long-range implications, to win my support. If Amazon workers think their options are feeble compensation now, they should imagine how they’ll feel watching more nimble dot-coms — those unsaddled with union baggage — zoom past them on the road to profitability.

Watch for Falling Mugs

In the past, unions helped workers win the right to be safe at their jobs. However, I don’t think the customer service people at Amazon face too many grave dangers on a daily basis. Maybe a little carpal tunnel from typing too much or bad backs from sitting a long time, but that’s run-of-the-mill.

I’ve never been to Amazon’s HQ, but my guess is that it’s not a mile-deep coal mine.

Unions have also helped stabilize work hours. Even employees who never joined unions have benefited from the overtime laws unions won. But in this busy Christmas season, my guess is that customer service types at Amazon performing extra work are certainly getting extra pay.

Try, Try Again

The fact that outside organizers have been taking repeated runs at Amazon — always during the busy holiday season, apparently — shows that there isn’t exactly feverish support for unionization inside the Seattle headquarters of the dot-com bellwether.

And that’s important. Because union movements that come from within are the ones that I can get behind. Sally Field as Norma Rae, saving her mother and co-workers from endless hours on a noisy factory floor — that’s union activism at its finest. An outside force working to convince people inside Amazon that they need a union is much less palatable.

Then there’s the morale issue. No doubt all Amazonians are down in the mouth about the stock price. Will a union help? Hardly. If anything, it will ensure a deep division between management and rank-and-file workers.

Unions, by their definition, rally around the workforce’s weakest links, jumping to the defense of employees who may not make the grade — at the expense of the best and brightest.

Unionized Robots?

The rapid evolution of technology is another reason to question the pursuit of dot-com unions. Already, “smart bots” can find and relay the answers to questions on some Web sites, providing customers with virtual customer service.

Now, this type of automation shouldn’t, and probably won’t, ever completely replace live human beings at the other end of the line. On the other hand, it wouldn’t take very many other technological leaps — streamlined site designs, registration and checkout processes, for instance — for the number of questions requiring answers from actual humans to drop dramatically.

If unions are in place at Amazon and elsewhere, that transition will be extremely difficult. I once worked at a newspaper where a union guild controlled the composing room. Technology had all but wiped out their jobs, but the remaining composing employees had to be kept on — so said the union.

Slow Departures

So the last of a breed occupied a little glass-encased booth far below the newsroom, where they sat during their shifts, looking over pages typeset by computer — something that assigning editors and copy editors and even interns had already done. The old guard’s function had been taken away, but none could be sent away without a union incident. Eventually, they all retired. The composing office, I hear, is now a break room.

The e-commerce equivalent is a dozen unionized customer service employees sitting in chairs in the year 2005, watching technology do the job they were hired to do back in 1997 and counting the days to retirement. This scenario flies in the face of everything that the digital economy was supposed to be — sleek, fast and completely devoid of anything extraneous or unnecessary.

E-commerce companies have to be nimble, able to react to changes in the economy, changes in technology and changes in their stock price or funding situations. To saddle them with any extra burden, such as a union, would doom them — and their employees — to failure.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


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