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e-Unions

Organized labor is looking for new turf-your dotcom.

Netpreneurs, listen up. Well-publicized union movements at sites like Amazon.com may seem far away, but they have a host of implications for smaller Web businesses. Bill Schurgin, labor and employment partner with law firm Seyfarth Shaw, explains dotcom union efforts this way: "Unions are a business. The product unions sell is representation. The traditional markets [for] unions are shrinking. Like any good business, unions are looking for new markets to sell their products, and one of the fastest-growing is technology-based companies."

The workers trying to unionize aren't programmers, analysts or IT professionals, but rather nonsalaried customer service, warehouse and distribution employees. At both consumer electronics site Etown (where unionization attempts were underway before the site shut down in February) and Amazon, the focus has been on customer service specialists. Drivers and warehouse workers at Internet grocer Webvan have also been targets.

While they may be a new force in e-commerce companies, unions have existed for years in such high-tech industries as telecommunications and among key e-tail service suppliers such as UPS. At press time, unions hadn't succeeded in organizing dotcom workers, but entrepreneurs should take note. "Once an industry becomes a target, the likelihood of unions targeting other employers in that industry, even smaller employers, increases," warns Schurgin.

For smaller companies with fewer resources, preparation and education are key to dealing with unionization. Schurgin advises three steps: "Educate managers on good employee relations, [teach them] the signs of union organizing, and provide them with the tools to effectively respond to union organizing in a lawful manner."

Among the best resources you can use to keep up-to-date on union activity are the unions' own Web sites. Visit AFLCIO.org and CWA-Union.org for the latest developments and a look at how unions are using the Internet to organize workers.

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This article was originally published in the June 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: e-Unions.

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