First Net unionization vote delayed

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 Inc. of illegally tampering with worker’s 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. “It’s been a real tense place,” she said, noting that the company has restructured since the guild began organizing. “It’s a pressure cooker.”

Etown 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 the San Francisco-based company. “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. “Video games on the floor, sleeping bags under the desk … it’s been OK for people” at dot-com companies, Poh said.

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,” she 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.”

The guild filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Monday, which will need to 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 for the NLRB. Earlier charges indicated that the company 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, highly-educated 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. “Maybe because we’re on 16th and Mission, I don’t know. The Web is part of our business, but we have more going on than that.” Inc. is at