Amid unionization effort, electronics site Etown cuts staff

Etown.com lays off 22 percent of its work force, just days after workers submitted a petition to hold an election on union representation.

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Etown.com laid off 22 percent of its staff Friday, just days after workers submitted a petition to hold an election on union representation.

The site, which is owned by Collaborative Media and provides information and reviews on consumer electronics products, cut 28 of its 127 staff members. Thirteen of the layoffs were in the customer service department, the area of the company that is attempting to unionize.

Bill Wyland, who is helping to spearhead the union effort, called the timing of the layoffs "highly suspicious." Representatives for the union effort have already filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board about the layoffs, said Wyland, an organizer with the San Jose (Calif.) Newspaper Guild.

"We're going to investigate this to the fullest extent," he said.

But Lew Brown, chief operating officer of Etown, denied any connection between the union effort and the layoffs, saying the decision to make the job cuts was approved by the board two weeks ago. The layoffs are part of a move to get away from the business-to-consumer market and toward profitability, he said. Brown also said the layoffs were handed down Friday and were effective immediately and that workers would not be given a severance package.

The layoffs in the company's customer service department were based on seniority, letting go anyone who was hired after Sept. 25, Brown said, noting that several known union sympathizers were among those retained by the company.

"Those suspicions are totally false," Brown said. "This has absolutely nothing to do with the union effort."

The union election at Etown would be one of the first at a dot-com company. A similar organizing effort is underway at e-commerce giant Amazon.com, but employees there have not yet collected the requisite number of signatures needed to hold a union election.

The layoffs at Etown, which has offices in San Francisco and in New York, are only the latest by a struggling dot-com. Earlier this week, Quokka Sports and Internet consulting company iXL Enterprises cut 20 percent and 35 percent of their staffs, respectively.

In addition to the layoffs in its customer service department, 10 positions were cut from Etown's sales, marketing and content-development departments. The company also announced that it would shut down its ShopAudioVideo.com division and eliminate five jobs.