Union organizers at
continue to clash with the e-tail giant's management over the terms of workers' severance packages.
Amazon recently set plans to lay off 1,300 workers in a drive to slash costs and push toward profitability. That culling included 350 workers at a Seattle customer service center, some of whom were involved in a drive to organize the center for
, a Seattle-area technical workers union. Union organizers maintain they were unfairly targeted in the cutbacks, a charge the company denies. Now the union, which wants the government to investigate its charges of antiunion bias in the layoffs, is pressing to make sure the laid-off workers don't lose their right to sue Amazon.
Union organizers recently won a victory when management ditched its gag order on laid-off workers who collect severance. They are now targeting two other clauses in the separation agreements, which employees are required to sign before receiving an enhanced severance package that gives them 10 weeks' pay and $500. The offending clauses, say organizers, would require workers to give up their right to sue.
"This is a clear indication of an industry that does not respect the rights of workers," says Marcus Courtney, co-founder of
, a union of technology workers that has long sought to unionize Amazon customer service workers in Seattle. According to Courtney, the clauses could preclude laid-off employees from seeking an investigation by the
National Labor Relations Board
into whether Amazon targeted the employees because of their union involvement.
Amazon management disagrees. In an email sent to customer service employees Feb. 9 and provided to
, the company conceded that under the agreement employees give up their rights to sue for damages. But the severance agreement is "not intended nor should it be interpreted to prevent individuals from participating in governmental administrative proceedings or processes, such as before the
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
and National Labor Relations Board."
The separation agreement states that employees agree not to "initiate, assist, participate in, or encourage any lawsuits or administrative proceedings against the company, except as required by law." Those last five words -- "except as required by law" -- get Amazon off the hook, according to Patty Davis, director of pubic relations.
But in a memorandum, lawyers representing WashTech contend that workers can legally forgo rights to pursue damages against Amazon, but cannot "waive their right to actually file a charge or to cooperate with investigations by state or federal agencies into allegations of unlawful conduct by Amazon."
On Feb. 8, management agreed to give employees until May to decide if they wish to sign the agreements. "We're famous for listening to our customers, but we also listen to our employees," says Bill Curry, spokesman at Amazon.
When Amazon announced Jan. 30 that it was lopping 15% off its payroll, including the 350 workers in Seattle, union organizers immediately protested, holding their own conference call with reporters just as Amazon management's call was finishing.
The company, however, says it opted to shutter its Seattle customer service center because it was Amazon's least cost-effective operation.
"It was the highest-cost customer service center at Amazon," says Curry. "They have a right to do what they were doing. We were just swimming upstream with the economics."
About 60 employees of around 400 in the center remain, says Courtney, but the future of the organizing activity is unclear. "Many of those
laid-off employees were actively involved in the union organizing effort," he says. "It's too early to tell."
The organizers hope to persuade the federal government to launch an investigation into whether the employees were targeted to be laid off because they hoped to form a union, a violation of federal labor law.
Amazon stock, reeling from a
downgrade, was off 44 cents at $14.