January 16, 2001, 9:26 AM — Plans have been set aside for workers to vote on establishing the first labor union at a dot-com company, after the union accused e-commerce company Etown.com of illegally tampering with workers' rights.
Etown management told employees that a union would harm business and that the company would be forced to shut down if a union was formed, said Erin Poh, a local representative at the Northern California Media Workers Guild, Local 39521.
The San Francisco-based firm's management denied the allegations. "I've gone on record and said that it isn't true," said Lew Brown, president and chief operating officer of Etown. "We never said that the company would go out of business ... or that we would close down a business with 100 employees because 13 want to unionize."
The guild of news reporters and other media employees is leading the organizing drive at Etown, which reviews consumer electronics products. Workers at high-tech companies have shied away from unions, in part because the strong economy, tight labor market and high skill set has ensured high pay by technology workers.
But with stock options becoming less valuable and less attractive for many workers, dot-com labor may look to more traditional forms of job and income security. "I don't think [dot-com workers] have been approached before," Poh said. "Now that it's a more bricks-and-mortar business plan ... the first people affected are going to be the ones at the bottom rung. We're reacting to an increased desire for stability and a changing environment in the workplace. It's nothing magic," she said.
The guild filed charges Monday with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which must investigate the charges before a new union vote date can be set. "The union charged that, during the last six months, the company has illegally said that union organization would result in loss of contracts or business and would be the reason for cancellation of business expansion," said Alan Reichard, assistant to the regional director at the NLRB. Earlier charges claimed that Etown laid off 15 employees as retaliation against organization for collective bargaining.
While a vote for the guild at Etown would have been the first sanctioned union election at an Internet company, management hesitated to call the company a dot-com, and the 13 workers who were to vote on unionization are customer service employees -- phone help desk workers, rather than the highly paid software engineers and network managers typically considered when thinking of dot-com labor.
"We've sort of been selected as a dot-com bellwether" for unionization efforts, Brown said. "The Web is part of our business, but we have more going on than that."