Tumbling technology share prices are leaving the surviving e-commerce companies facing a unique set of difficulties. Share options, a perk only for board members in bricks-and-mortar companies, have been more widespread in the new e-economy.
With many of those options now virtually worthless, e-commerce companies are facing disgruntled employees - a situation which trade unions are trying to cash in on.
Amazon, one of the most high-profile and successful dotcoms ever, is facing the most ambitious unionisation drive ever undertaken in the high-technology sector.
The company has experienced explosive growth over the past couple of years - with forecast sales of $2.7bn in 2000 and 25 million customers worldwide. At its heart is a large logistics and retail operation - and it is these staff who are a target for trade unions.
Amazon’s share price has lost two-thirds of its value in the past year, and layoffs have eliminated 2% of the company’s jobs.
Unions cite job insecurity, mandatory overtime, holiday restrictions and sudden shift changes as key issues boosting their membership drive.
The Communications Workers of America has begun a campaign to unionise 400 customer-service representatives at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Prewitt Organising Fund, an independent organising group, are also attempting to unionise some 5,000 workers at Amazon’s eight distribution centres across the country. The campaign has been launched to coincide with the lucrative Christmas season.
Publicly, Amazon is unconcerned: “It’s not the first time they have tried to organise. It’s nothing new,” said company spokeswoman Patty Smith. “We hired intelligent and dedicated employees, and we trust them to make decisions about what’s best for their future, but obviously we don’t believe a union is best for their future or our customers.”
However, internally Amazon has responded robustly to the campaign. Over the past two weeks, Amazon customer service workers in Seattle, called “associates” by the company, have been invited by managers to a series of “all hands” meetings, where the case against unionisation has been made.
“Inform reps of the disadvantages of joining a union, including the possibility of strikes, serving on picket lines, fines and dues,” wrote one company executive to Amazon supervisors.
The company has also set up a section on their internal Web site - the main purpose of which, according to Smith, is to clarify to supervisors what they can do legally to oppose a union and provide information on the benefits workers already enjoy.
“Unions limit associate incentives. Merit increases are contrary to union philosophy,” the Web site said. “Unions actively foster distrust toward supervisors. A union promotes and thrives upon problems between supervisors and employees. Front-line supervisors who deal effectively with associate problems avoid associates believing they need a union.”
Since the start of the campaign Amazon has softened its approach by removing a requirement that individual reps send out the firm’s official e-mail response regarding unionisation efforts in response to enquiries. It has reduced phone shifts over the Christmas period and introduced free massages.
Employers, unions and financial institutions are keenly watching the dispute. According to the Prewitt Fund’s Duane Stillwell, “We think it is a unique opportunity to impact working conditions in the Internet retail economy. And obviously, as Amazon goes, so go the practices in that industry.” The strength of the response from Amazon has surprised the unions, which admit their organising drive has not yet been as successful as expected.
While Amazon’s German warehouse workforce established a union in April this year, there are as yet few signs of moves towards unionisation in France and Britain.
Nigel Stanley, head of communications for the Trades Union Congress thinks that may change. He warned dot-coms need to change their working practices to reflect their growth.
“You can’t keep the excitement of a start-up going for years and years,” said Stanley. “And you can’t build an economy simply by employing 25-year-olds and expecting them to burn out by the time they’re 30.”
Mike Arrowsmith works for Labour Research Department, an independent analysts’ organisation for trade unions