Tech Industry

Amazon, employees joust over union effort

An attempt by some of the e-tailer's customer service workers to organize their fellow employees has led to conflicting accounts about whether the company violated labor laws.

Amazon.com and its customer service employees are entering the jungle of labor tension.

An attempt Friday by some of the Seattle-based company's customer service workers to organize their fellow employees has led to conflicting accounts about whether the company violated labor laws. A lawyer for the employees charged in a letter to Amazon on Friday that it illegally quashed an attempt to hand out union literature. But the company says that organizers left of their own accord.

Amazon's "actions constitute an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act," wrote Seattle attorney Lawrence Schwerin, who represents the employees and their organizing union, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech). "Absent your cooperation in promptly correcting this violation, we will take appropriate legal action."

But Amazon is following labor law guidelines, said company spokeswoman Patty Smith. "At no time did anyone from Amazon tell the folks from WashTech that they had to leave," she said.

The dispute comes one month after some 50 Amazon customer service workers launched their drive to unionize the company's Seattle customer service center. The employees are seeking better wages, job security and more of a voice in the company.

A similar organization effort is under way at San Francisco-based Etown.com. Though Amazon employees are still gathering signatures on their union petition, Etown's customer service workers have already submitted their petition to the National Labor Relations Board, asking for it to supervise an election on unionization.

But the organizing effort at Etown has also been rancorous. After the filing of the petition, Etown laid off more than a third of its 36 customer service workers. Although the company said the moves were unrelated, employees filed a complaint with the NLRB, charging that the company violated labor laws.

The dispute at Amazon centers on an attempt Friday by several Amazon employees to set up a table in the company's lunchroom to give information on the union drive. The manager on duty "kicked out" the employees from the lunchroom and told them that their effort violated Amazon's no-solicitation policy, said Marcus Courtney, an organizer for WashTech.

"Management is doing whatever it can not to allow the union to talk to workers," Courtney said.

Not so, says Amazon. The company opposes the union effort and feels employees have a right to know why, Smith said. But, she added, "It's the employees' decision, and the company will abide by it."

Employees involved in the incident did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

Amazon doesn't have a no-solicitation policy, Smith said. Instead, employees have the right to hand out information on third-party organizations and events as long as they do it on a day in which they work, in a nonwork area, and while they are on a break.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees not on company time may solicit others to join a union in nonwork areas such as break rooms and cafeterias. The NLRB can go to court to force employers to allow such solicitation.

Unlike with Etown, the Amazon employees and WashTech have not yet filed an official complaint about the lunchroom incident with the NLRB.