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[whitespace] Dotcomsters Union

Coming soon to a snake pit near you

By Annalee Newitz

'I've worked for a lot of companies in my time," says former etown.com customer service supervisor Tony Garcia, "but this is the worst company management I've ever seen. They just fired two more people without severance pay right before Thanksgiving, and the reason given was just that management didn't think [the fired workers] were 'happy' at etown." He laughs and adds ruefully, "The firings will continue until morale improves."

Garcia's former co-supervisor at etown, Chase Rummonds, continues, "The company hired this halfwit trainer for an ungodly sum of money to help get all the new staff up to speed. To answer most customer questions, reps had to manage multiple databases, make calls and possibly do electronic chat all at the same time. But the trainer did nothing about this--he wasn't fulfilling his basic duties. [Garcia] and I ended up having to design a training module by ourselves." At etown.com, a consumer electronics portal in San Francisco that dispenses product evaluations and advice, the customer service department had grown from three people to 30 in less than a year. It was the consummate startup environment--employees hired to answer phones ended up managing databases; in other departments, NT programmers built desks.

But unlike stereotypical dotcommers, customer service supervisors like Garcia and Rummonds were not salaried employees, nor were they paid handsomely. They and their colleagues earned anywhere from $10.50 to $16 per hour. The customer service department was 24/7 and worked intense eight-hour shifts, answering email, chat requests and phone calls. When holidays came around, managers would ask employees to "volunteer" for shifts or their names would be randomly drawn from a hat.

In the fall of this year, problems began escalating fast. There were no employee evaluations or salary reviews. People were given raises randomly. Meanwhile, Garcia reports, they watched as the person hired to be their "trainer" took long trips to Europe to do vague things like "visit web companies."

And there were the little things, too, that let the customer service department know that management really didn't give a shit about them. The Webvan orders of sodas and cheezits never got any bigger, although the department size had grown by 20 people. Their diminishing food bribes were like a symbol of all that had gone wrong at etown. The workers were undercompensated and underappreciated.

That's when they started meeting and talking openly about how sick they were of what was going on. "Groups of friends started taking Fridays off," Rummonds recalls, "and we were so fed up that we started saying to each other that we should just walk out of this."

Neither Rummonds nor Garcia had ever been involved in a union action before, but they and 14 other workers decided to stage a sick-out. Unlike a traditional strike, a sick-out is when workers agree to collectively call in sick one day as a show of their solidarity and as a warning to their employer. Also unlike a strike, people in a sick-out don't usually admit to their employers that they've been participating in a labor action. They just insist they've been sick, and let their bosses connect the dots: if the bad conditions at work persist, there are many workers willing to walk off the job.

On Friday, October 6, 20 etown customer service reps--two-thirds of the department--were mysteriously sick. Rummonds sent an email to [email protected] on the following Sunday explaining why they had staged the sick-out.

Monday morning, Oct. 9, Rummonds was called into a meeting with the director of human resources and the director of customer service. They asked him to promise that he would never walk out of work again. When he refused, they fired him. Tuesday morning, Garcia was called in. Sticking with the sick-out rules, he denied any involvement. He was told that he was "being dishonest" and that "in order to salvage my relationship with etown I'd need to tell the truth." Then they fired him. Lew Brown, president and CEO of etown's parent company, Collaborative Media, denies that anyone was fired for labor organizing.

Now Rummonds, Garcia and current etown customer service workers are working on forming a union through The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America. Their sick-out is the first labor action taken by any dotcom workers in the country.

When your work situation becomes so unjust that it's absurd, ask yourself this question: Are you feeling sick today?

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who has watched the sun rise while shivering on a strike picket line. This is the first of a two-part column on unionizing. Reach her at [email protected].

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From the December 7-13, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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