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Event # 243: MAN OUT OF TIME
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The more adroit journalists noted, last year, Labor success with the engineers at Boeing. The next big story will be based on whether Labor succeeds in unionizing sectors of e-commerce leader Amazon.com. Organized labor received no better treatment or consideration under the Clinton Administration of the United States than it had under that of former-President Bush; NAFTA and GATT remained at the top of both President's agendas and the focus of American economic development was on globalization and Wall Street, not working people and community stake-holders.
This political reality led to a stratetic change on the part of union leaders and organizers. They faced that they needed to focus on white- and pink-collar workers as much as they had on blue-collar workers in the past. This decision led to the realization that they needed to look at the high tech sector. The success of organizing at Boeing was a harbinger of things to come.
As Duane Stillwell, president of the Prewitt Organizing Fund, an independent group working with various labor unions, told the New York Times:
"This is an important way for labor to enter the new millennium.This is a labor force that unions need to get next to. Amazon is obviously the leader in the Internet e-retailing economy, and as they go, so goes the industry."
Amazon isn't taking this new challenge lying down, of course. Amazon management continues to argue, as high-tech firms before them have traditionally done, that there is no need for unions in the e-commerce and high tech sectors. Their employees are compensated well and are "owners" of the company by way of their stock options, the mantra goes. But many high tech workers aren't buying that management thesis any longer --- especially since April when lay-offs throughout the dot-coms have become as regular in as in other economic sectors, stock options have proved to be little more than "Confederate money" and failures and closings of dot-coms have become legend on Main Street and the source of running jokes.
As reported in a previous "MEMOIR" ["Dot-com Deathwatch",] the rage this year on the Web was sites reporting the imminent or actual failure of dot-com enterprises.
This newest development has come at a particulary bad time for Amazon.com which, since Jeff Bezos was chosen TIME magazine's "Man of the Year" for 1999, has received as many brickbats as kudos from the Web and business press. Their much-vaunted "first-mover" lead in e-commerce was badly undermined by last year's fulfilment and customer service problems --- especially during the crucial retail holiday season of '99 --- and they have been scrambling all year to come back by way of establishing a network of nationwide distribution centers to meet the 2000 holiday season demand.
And it is exactly the fulfilment and customer service systems that union organizing is targetting. Customer service workers in Seattle are disgruntled, for example, because their salaries don't meet the high cost of living in the area --- and stock options aren't liquid capital to pay bills, mortgages and loans in the brick-and-mortar world.
Workers at the new warehouse centers complain about being given extremely short-notice about overtime work, being separated from their families, and suspecting --- as many high tech workers learned this year --- that the stock options they receive are not a fair trade-off for actual compensation.
The NYT article quotes one worker: "Amazon may be the symbol of the new economy, but it has the worst of the working conditions of the old economy."
As the entire new economy is faced with the internal challenge of increasingly disillusioned work forces, the disappearance of venture capital open checkbooks for anything with "dot-com" after its name and the external challenge of markets responding to profitability more than to New Economy hype, the Third Wave is being forced to change its very nature. The days of CEO's walking away with millions of dollars based on vaporware concepts are coming to an end.
The real question facing Amazon.com and other e-commerce and high tech businesses as we move to what Asimov insists is the true dawning of the new millennium is who among them will be left standing, who really understands business fundamentals.
And as more and more people around the world question the tenets of globalization, governments, labor unions and average citizens will have more and more to say about the final mix.
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