Human Capital & Careers

Dot-Com Union Organizer Schedules Election

Hint: It's not Amazon. But it could still have a significant impact on the industry.
Craig SchneiderDecember 18, 2000

In less than one month, a little-known Internet company may make an Amazon-size impact on the entire industry if its voters vote to unionize.

Earlier this month, customer service employees of Etown.com, a San Francisco-based electronics product review Web site owned by Collaborative Media, filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold an election on union representation.

Several days later, management cut 22 percent of its 127-person staff. Click here to read “Big Trouble in Little Etown”

However, the firings did little to curb the employees’ efforts to unionize. Last Wednesday an election date was set for January 12.

The scheduling occurred when Etown’s management gave the bargaining unit of about 15 of the company’s remaining customer service reps the okay to hold the election, according to Erin Poe, an organizer with The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America (CWA), the group working on behalf of the employees.

In terms of size and public awareness, the Etown group’s organization effort pales in comparison to Amazon.com’s 400 customer service reps who are also currently attempting to unionize. But experts say Etown’s impact on the dot-com world can be just as far-reaching, if its union election is ultimately a success.

“I think it still has tremendous implications because there are ripple effects that could occur,” says Gary Chaison, Ph.D, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “Even if [the potential size of the resulting union] winds up being a small one, the CWA will say, ‘We were just successful organizing this one. Let’s organize yours as well.’”

Chaison adds, “It will receive a tremendous amount of publicity and play [in the media]. It would be like organizing IBM.”

Ongoing unionizing efforts at Amazon.com may even gain much-needed momentum as a result. “It [Etown.com organizing] helps by validating the experience that you’re not alone out there trying to collectively address your concerns and build a union in an industry that has grown union free,” says Marcus Courtney, co-founder of The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, which is attempting to organize Amazon.com’s group.

“I think it will have a significant impact on the industry because it will be a historic vote if they say ‘union yes,’” Courtney adds. According to experts, both Amazon and Etown’s customer service reps fear for their job security and don’t feel they have a strong enough voice.

But unlike Etown.com’s employees, Amazon.com’s employees have yet to gain the 30 percent minimum support to file for an election with the NLRB. And efforts to gain a majority have been pushed past the Christmas timeline goal into next year. Etown.com’s employees have already gained 70 percent support from their rank and file for the union election.

This contrasts points to the fact that Etown’s small size works in the union’s favor. “In many ways it’s easier for a union to win in a small unit than to win in a large unit,” says Bob Kristoff, a partner at law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker in San Francisco.

However, it’s still too early to call a victory. “About half of elections are won by the unions,” Chaison says. “So they’re far from a sure thing.”

Also, the small staff size could allow management to easily influence the vote by communicating to employees why a union is unnecessary or why it could have a potentially harmful presence. “This is typically when management turns on the heavy-duty anti-union campaign internally so we have to make sure we answer employee questions,” remarks CWA’s Poe.

Kristoff says that one of management’s strategies is to point out the limitations of a union. For example, if a union drive does succeed, it only means the union earns the right to sit down with the employer to create a collective bargaining agreement. It does not mean management must agree to the terms.

And unless the employees are willing to go on strike with no benefits or pay, they won’t have leverage to force the employer to agree to the union’s demands.

Still, Chaison says when a union organizes, it winds up with a collective bargaining agreement nearly 70 percent of the time.

Regardless of the result, Chaison is still impressed that the small group of Etown employees has made it this far. “I think the organizing campaign is very significant, especially since they are going for an election,” he says. “That’s considerable progress. The one for the workers at Amazon.com may be more publicity than anything else.”