'New Economy' High-Tech Jobs Look Much Like Old Economy Low-Wage Work

The “new economy” is another name for an old bag of tricks where promise and reality don’t match up. E-workers counting on valuable stock options, a revolutionized workplace, and premier wages and benefits have instead gotten mediocre wages, useless stock options, relentless production pressure, and maximum job insecurity.

Only recently has labor begun meeting these workers to chart a course for collective action and unionization. Amazon.com is an example of both the crisis for e-workers and the challenge for unions to organize in this sector.

In 1998, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and its project Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech) began an organizing effort to link up high-tech workers in the Seattle area, including workers at Microsoft and customer service reps at Amazon. In mid-2000, the Prewitt Organizing Fund started the Alliance of New Economy Workers (ANEW) to organize Amazon’s distribution center workers worldwide, including about 5,000 at seven centers in the U.S. (POF is an independent non-profit group formed by labor organizers to help workers organize, with the expectation that they will hook up with an existing union.)

LEVERAGE TIME

The POF approach emphasized two things--the need to organize globally from the start and the need for Amazon workers to act at the time they have the most leverage.

In 1997 Amazon expanded its distribution hubs in the U.S. from Seattle to smaller towns with very high unemployment, in Kansas, Kentucky, Nevada, Georgia, and Delaware. The company opened a center in Campbellsville, Kentucky, for example, where Fruit of the Loom had recently moved offshore and put 4,000 people out of work.

With local unemployment over 26 percent, 3,000 people applied for 500 openings. Local and state government lined up lucrative incentives: $40 million in revenue bonds and tax credits. The community hoped that Amazon would provide high-wage, secure jobs to stabilize the future of this hurting community.

Campbellsville bought the promise of high-paying jobs and even higher-valued stock only to find that these jobs looked a lot like the “old economy.” Work weeks over fifty hours, mandatory and excessive overtime, mediocre pay (around $9 to $14), and unaffordable family health insurance are typical for Amazon distribution center workers. Amazon lured workers with “great benefits,” but workers could not afford to buy the family health coverage at $70/week.

On Thanksgiving Day employees had the ‘privilege’ of having their Thanksgiving dinners at the warehouses and were able to invite family members as well. After the dinner they went back to work and family members returned home, reminiscent of a conjugal visit in a prison.

A worker in McDonough, Georgia said, “I can’t cover my kids on the insurance; it’s just too expensive.” The McDonough facility closed in February, displacing over 600 employees.
Stock options were to make amends for mediocre to low pay. The lower pay made the long hours necessary to make ends meet. Throughout the dot.com sector, the lure of stock options has been shattered in the wake of a stock market “correction,” massive layoffs, bankruptcies, and the reality of vesting periods for stock ownership.

As one Amazon.com worker put it, who, like all employees, requested anonymity, “The whole thing with stock ownership and calling workers associates is just a scam to make people think they have more invested than they really do.”

HOLIDAY SPEED-UP

Company policy during the Christmas season typifies the character of Amazon management. Workers are expected to work holidays, evenings, and weekends. The company institutes a black-out period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and no absence is excused.

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

In the New Castle, Delaware distribution center, management has installed a huge traffic light. If the light is green at the end of your scheduled workday you can go home. If it is yellow there is voluntary overtime; if it is red you cannot go home. Last year it was normal for employees to be forced to work for more than 14 days straight to meet the Christmas rush.

On Thanksgiving Day employees had the “privilege” of having their Thanksgiving dinners at the warehouses and were able to invite family members as well. After the dinner they went back to work and family members returned home, reminiscent of a conjugal visit in a prison.

With workers consistently emphasizing how strenuous the holiday season is at Amazon, and with Amazon doing a majority of their business at this time of year, the POF thought the holiday season could be a leverage point. On November 15, 2000, POF and WashTech separately announced they were pursuing campaigns at Amazon.

WashTech’s focus was the customer service reps that were starting to talk about work slowdowns and sickouts due to excessive workloads during the holiday season and Amazon’s decision to open a customer service center in New Delhi, India. POF’s campaign was to help workers organize at the ten distribution centers across the United States and Europe.

POF’s partner union had been the United Food and Commercial Workers. But after the November presidential election, the UFCW pulled out, angry, union spokespersons said, over POF President Duane Stillwell’s public support for Ralph Nader.

This left the campaign much weaker, but still, more than a thousand workers and community members supported a “Call for Fairness” and signed ANEW’s petition demanding limits on mandatory overtime, better wages, reasonable time off, and affordable family insurance.

Within a week of the public announcement of the “Call for Fairness,” ANEW and Amazon workers had their first victory. For the first time, Amazon agreed to limit the weekend hours and holidays worked and distribution center workers won a pay increase and overtime bonus that they had wanted for a long time.

INTERNATIONAL TIES

At the same time, POF reached out to unions in Europe: the Graphical, Paper, Media Union (GPMU) in England; Solidaires, Unitaires, Democratiques (SUD), an independent federation of unions in France; and Gewerkschaft Handel, Banken, und Versicherungen (HBV), a commercial, banking, and insurance union in Germany. The response by the European unions was overwhelming support.

In March Amazon organizers from the U.S., England, Germany, and France met in Washington, D.C. to discuss an international strategy to organize Amazon. In Europe the workers and unions hope to build a European Workers Council for Amazon workers in the three countries.

In the U.S. Amazon workers and organizers hope to start building towards actions during the 2001 holiday season.

Patrick Moran is an organizer with the Prewitt Organizing Fund.