Union No. John Kearney on New Economy union-busting

THE INTERNET CORPORATION FOR ASSIGNED NAMES AND NUMBERS gathered last month at a Marriott Inn in Marina del Rey, California to referee the selection of new top-level domains to join the ranks of .com, .net, .edu, and .org. Among the winners: .biz, .museum, .pro, .aero. Among the losers: .union, which would have been reserved for the collective-bargaining units that many cyber-pundits proclaim the obsolete losers of the New Economy.

THE INTERNET CORPORATION FOR ASSIGNED NAMES AND NUMBERS gathered last month at a Marriott Inn in Marina del Rey, California to referee the selection of new top-level domains to join the ranks of .com, .net, .edu, and .org. Among the winners: .biz, .museum, .pro, .aero. Among the losers: .union, which would have been reserved for the collective-bargaining units that many cyber-pundits proclaim the obsolete losers of the New Economy.

The rejection of the domain is poetically apt for organizations so often dismissed as anachronisms. But the intense lobbying effort mounted behind the scenes against .union — led by the anti-labor pressure group Labor Policy Association, along with a cadre of intellectual property lawyers — was itself telling. This fall, Internet and tech companies have shown themselves as vulnerable to labor organizing as their old economy forebears, and as capable of anti-union fervor.

In late November, the San Francisco local of the Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board to certify union representation for thirty-six employees at etown, representing perhaps the first dot-com employees to seek union status. Thirteen of the thirty-six employees were fired two days later, though Lew Brown, etown.com’s president and CEO, said the dismissals were for economic reasons, and the timing “an unfortunate coincidence.”

Meanwhile, at Amazon.com, the Washington Alliance of Technological Workers is making tentative inroads organizing some four hundred Seattle-based customer-service representatives; concurrently, the Prewitt Organizing Fund, an independent organizing group, is attempting to unionize five thousand workers at the eight Amazon distribution centers nationwide. Amazon’s response has been aggressive and swift: half a dozen “all-hands” meetings were held in two weeks for all customer-service reps; “associates” (i.e., employees) have been bombarded with pamphlets blazing titles such as “Be Smart. Don’t Sign a Union Card.” Supervisors are given talking points on warning signs of union infiltration: look for growing “aggressive” behavior, and “hushed conversations when you approach which have not occurred before.”

So far, New Economy collective bargaining hasn’t yet made its way into the programming staff at Amazon or anywhere else; the skills of programmers in a tight labor market have given them bargaining leverage. But the not-so-invisible hand of high-tech lobbyists is doing its best to loosen it. Companies like Microsoft and Texas Instruments have successfully lobbied Congress to expand the number of H-1B visas for foreign skilled workers who can enter the U.S. job market (nearly doubling the cap of 1999), giving software companies a pool of skilled, comparatively low-paid employees unlikely to organize because they depend on employers for their guestworker visas and green card applications. A Department of Commerce report recently estimated that 28% of U.S. programming jobs are now filled by foreign nationals.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, last year shown autographing the hard hats of adoring Amazon employees in a Time “Person of the Year” hagiography, has conceded that “unions serve a role in society.” But that role is suspended at Amazon.com. “We don’t believe in unions, because everybody is an owner,” Bezos has told reporters. Of course, the number of Amazon.com stock options owned by workers gives them no leverage in terms of decision-making power at the firm. The overwhelming majority of shares are held by Wall Street investment banks, mutual funds, and the Bezos family; employees trying to participate in, say, benefits policy at a stockholder meeting would be handily trounced. Still, the combination of dot-com glamour and stock-option promise had, for a while, been a potent intoxicant. But now that Amazon.com options have dropped from valuations over $300 to their current quivering in the low 20s, these options have ceased to ameliorate the customer service workers’ mandatory overtime and below-market wages.

Amazon has always had a strong, perhaps inflated, sense of its historical importance. “Work hard, have fun, make history” is the company slogan. It’s not just about selling the DVD of Showgirls (complete with “making of” documentary), but, in Bezos’s words, about “trying to change the world,” building a revolutionary business model in which shareholders, employees, and customers all come out winners. To the extent that this was the promise of so many Internet companies, Amazon’s unionization struggles have been greeted as a particularly dispiriting sign that Silicon Valley hasn’t so much figured out a solution to the old labor-management problems as obscured them with stock options and a putatively equalizing casual atmosphere. As the customer-service employees try to unionize at Amazon.com, their weekly goals of calls and e-mails are clocked, the content of e-mails closely monitored. Turn-of-the (twentieth)-century Taylorism efficiency models have somehow crept into the consumer-culture utopia of Amazon.com. As have turn-of-the (twentieth)-century issues like aggressive anti-union tactics. But there has been progress: Amazon employees can, after all, wear Vans to work.

John Kearney has contributed to a variety of national publications. He last wrote for FEED on the history of American third parties.

Author: John Kearney

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