Amazon workers stage walkout to protest layoffs

About 50 workers protesting recent layoffs stage a 15-minute walkout urging the e-tailer to withdraw certain conditions for receiving a full severance package.

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About 50 Amazon.com workers protesting recent layoffs staged a 15-minute walkout this week, chanting slogans and handing out fliers urging the company to withdraw certain conditions for receiving a full severance package, participants said.

The workers are in Amazon's Seattle customer service center, which is scheduled to be closed next month. The department was at the center of a nascent union movement, where organizers were collecting signatures to take the first steps toward forming a union.

"This was the one-week anniversary of the announcement of layoffs," said J.J. Wandler, who participated in the walkout Tuesday. "This was to draw attention to the separation agreement and its unfair, illegal provisions."

Amazon representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

"This is the first time Amazon has ever had a walkout," said Marcus Courtney, an organizer at the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), which has led a union drive at Amazon. "This is a pretty significant labor action at the company."

Union organizers said that before the company announced it was closing the 400-person department, they had gathered signatures of more than 25 percent of the workers.

Last week, Amazon announced that it will lay off 1,300 employees--15 percent of its work force--to cut costs. Although affected employees have already been notified that their jobs have been cut, many will continue to work with the company until May, when their jobs officially end.

Amazon offered all laid-off workers a standard package that included two weeks of severance pay and a share in a $2.5 million stock-based trust fund that the company will distribute in 2003.

But the Seattle-based see related story: Stock options for laid-off employees?company also offered workers extra weeks of severance pay and a cash bonus if they signed a separation agreement by Feb. 9. Despite the offer, many workers have declined to sign the agreement thus far, criticizing certain provisions within it. Among their chief complaints: the possible loss of the right to sue Amazon for sexual harassment or racial discrimination, the lack of an end date for the contract, and the possibility that Amazon could fire workers before the last day stipulated by the agreement to avoid paying the severance package.

WashTech has urged workers not to sign the document and is considering filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and asking for an injunction to prevent Amazon from enforcing the Friday deadline.

Customer service worker Alan Barclay, for instance, said he will probably wind up signing the agreement reluctantly, despite participating in the protest.

"We're going to be unemployed; we need the money," Barclay said. "I think most people will end up signing."