When I heard that there were no unions at Amazon.com, I immediately rushed to their Web site to see if it was really true. I typed in the word "union" and did a search. There was a book on "Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare in the Civil War"; State of the Union, a 1948 Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn movie; a "Union Underground" CD with explicit lyrics; and a five-tine razor-back manure fork from the Union Tool Company.
There were plenty of unions at Amazon.com. So what had I read in The New York Times (Nov. 29) about the company's internal Web site telling employees that unions are a "greedy, for-profit business" and giving managers tips on how to suss out groups of workers trying to form a union? Could it really be true? I struck deeper into the Amazon Web site, to the section entitled, "What are we really like?"
Here I learned that everyone at Amazon.com works "hard, long and smart." They "make history." They like people who "think out of the box and articulate their ideas." But what if they articulate the idea of forming a union? Amazon's internal Web site, says the Times, advises that "unions mean strife and possible strikes; that while unions are certain to charge expensive dues, they cannot guarantee improved wages or benefits."
Amazon's public site invites college and MBA students to work in "small teams with the best and the brightest." Amazon's internal site warns that "small group huddles" which break up in silence "on the approach of the supervisor" are a sign of nascent union organization. Note to small teams: don't huddle. You've got an MBA; you figure out the difference.
A "Holiday Delight-O-Meter" on Amazon's public site revealed that 14,243,067 units had been ordered worldwide since November. Amazon's internal site revealed "warning signs" of union organization including "an increase in complaints, a decrease in the quality of work, growing aggressiveness and dawdling in the lunchroom and restrooms." But aren't those also the warning signs of working your employees to death?
Not for Paul. He's an Amazon employee who tells it straight in a testimonial on the Amazon public site: "My mind has rarely been more stimulated in my life," he writes. "The vibe within the production group can be so strong: Conversations switch between Web site architecture to Rogerian psychoanalysis, from object-oriented Perl to pickup trucks, and the stream of Simpsons quotes can percolate for days. It's like a family, where we give each other rides to the airport, help each other move, and go for weekly bowling outings."
So that's why Amazon.com doesn't like unions: They're a family! But: Families don't lay you off when business goes bust; they're not supposed to tell you lies and ignore your complaints; they don't spy on you when you huddle in small groups; and they don't consider it a "warning sign" when you dawdle in the bathroom. Maybe workplaces are not families. And maybe, that's why people form unions in the first place.
A version of this essay aired on Pacifica Network News