Same as the old boss: How Amazon honed its anti-union bent at a Seattle call center 20 years ago

Activists protest union busting and other issues outside Amazon’s 2019 shareholder meeting. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Among the biggest stories in the country is an effort to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala. The final employee votes have arrived and are in the process of being verified and counted. If the effort is successful, it would be the first unionized workforce in Amazon’s 26-year history.

But whichever way the vote swings in Bessemer, it’s hardly the first attempt to unionize Amazon workers. That distinction belongs to organizers in the Pacific Northwest back in 1999, when the online retail giant had only 10,000 employees. (It now has 1.3 million worldwide.)

Marcus Courtney, union advocate and principal at Courtney Public Affairs.

A group of call center workers — yes, Amazon actually had a sizeable Seattle call center in those days — approached the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech) about organizing union representation to combat the company’s employment practices that included claims of low pay, excessively long hours, questionable job security, and other concerns.

Enter Marcus Courtney, then a 30-year-old union organizer and WashTech member. He began reaching out and organizing hundreds of Amazon’s call center employees from 1999 to 2000. Now 50 years old and an owner of his own public affairs agency, Courtney Public Affairs, he sees an obvious parallel between what he experienced two decades ago and what he sees in Bessemer today.

Read on for highlights from our conversation, and listen to the whole interview below on the latest episode of Day 2, a new podcast series from GeekWire about Amazon’s impact on the world. Subscribe to Day 2 wherever you listen.

GeekWire reporter Mike Lewis: Can you walk us through what happened?

Marcus Courtney: It was back in 1999 and early in 2000 that a group of call center workers at Amazon came to our union, WASHTECH, which was affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. There were about 500-to-600 call center workers and they said that they felt that their working conditions at the company were very, very stressful.

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Many of the things that you’re seeing happening in Bessemer were also very similar to what happened in that drive in 1999. A very aggressive pushback by the company. Individual discussions by management to workers. And at the time, it was very surprising to us because most of the tech companies that we had organized didn’t act as aggressively against the union as Amazon did.

GW: Tell me about the specific classification of employees that you were trying to organize at this juncture?

Courtney: This was the group of call center workers or customer service agents. Here we are in 2021 and people really don’t think of Amazon as a company that would have call center agents. But you could call up and talk to a customer service agent.

There was more and more work that was getting answered via email versus the call center. And (as workers) moved to more of the online work, the expectation of those workers to answer these incoming emails and address customers concerns, especially around the busy holiday period, led to a lot of what they felt was excessive overtime and also unrealistic goals.

GW: Talk to me a bit a little bit about the work-rate issue, because that is obviously a discussion by the organizers in Bessemer.

Courtney: They actually called their union ‘Day Two,’ because ‘Day One’ was the ethos of the day, the idea of every day as if it was the first day at Amazon. You have to bring this level of intensity to work, this level of passion to work.

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For these call center workers, it was this idea of you constantly needed to do more, you constantly had to raise the game, to push, and they often felt that the goals that they were being asked to fulfill were unrealistic and that there wasn’t this balance due to 10-hour workdays or mandatory overtime.

GW: There are parallels to what’s happening in Bessemer. Amazon’s basic statement about all of these things is that they have a $15 an hour minimum wage, health benefits, retirement benefits, upward mobility — very different from many warehouse jobs. Would you say that if you were a labor organizer in Bessemer right now?

Courtney: Well, what I would say is that’s it’s true: Amazon does a $15-an-hour minimum wage. But I think this is an issue beyond wages. It’s actually about these broader concerns that I think are shared by workers across the country, and especially during a pandemic. Is the company actually taking all the precautions that are necessary in order to keep those workers safe?

This is also a workforce with black workers leading this union effort. And I think that they see the racial context and the issues of racial justice issues raised. Nobody can argue the idea that Amazon is not going to be able to be around or is going to go bankrupt because workers want to organize when it is literally one of the world’s most successful companies in the history of the world.

GW: Did Amazon executives or managers know about the union discussions? When they did find out, what did they do?

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Courtney: They probably heard rumblings. And then they probably saw the workers were organizing, and they probably thought, ‘Well, would this actually get legs?’

But I think once the organizing drive launched, and they saw that, in fact, there were hundreds of workers that were willing to start speaking out and publicly endorsing the idea of union, Amazon did a very aggressive response to it. They launched an internal website, explaining to managers how to dissuade workers from joining the union, and making sure that they communicated regularly to workers the reasons why they felt the company shouldn’t be organized by a union.

When it became a major news story that was covered by international publications and national publications, management became much, much more aggressive. It certainly had an impact.

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