root - Posted on 04 September 2000

Warehouse Unions confront the E-Commerce Industry

by Scott Clark

The building at 255 9th St. in San Francisco is, by comparison to a lot of office buildings nowadays, a dinosaur. The words: Warehouse Union Local 6, I.L.W.U. stand out over top of a mural of an infamous labor struggle, which is partially obscured at all hours by two semi-clasping trees . The look of the place inside, with its muted sunlight, and red oak paneling, is a quieting influence in contrast to the flow of traffic up 9th St.. Except, that is, when there are union meetings going on, the occasional early evening or a Saturday; or early in the morning when the dispatch office opens. This is also the home offices for I.L.A. Local 38-44 Weighers, Warehousemen, & Cereal Workers; and the San Francisco Bike Messenger Association, The United Farm Workers and POOR Magazine, as well as the aforementioned I.L.W.U. Local 6.

The warehouse industries mentioned above are facing new challenges as commerce changes into ecommerce, and new styles of doing business accommodate themselves to the fast-changing paradigms of the 21st century. The presence of POOR Magazine in the same location, and the fact that POOR is an Internet-based nonprofit that has a reporting focus on, among others, issues of class struggle, were the influencing factors behind this article.

To shed light on the issue I sought out Fred Pecker, Business Manager for Local 6.

POOR: I'm here to talk to you about the ecommerce delivery companies that are not union-based.

Fred: Well., just so you know, a lot of them are union-based. What did you want to know?

P: Why can't a union-based company do just as good a job as a non union-based company?

F: They can. Traditionally, the union does not necessarily get all the contracts that are out there. With companies that have been around for awhile, there is more opportunity for unions to do the work and the organizing that is required to get those contracts.
Webvan, for example. They have their main warehouse, which they stock from the big Webvan trucks centrally. They stock the big warehouse with items that are currently in demand, and the central warehouse provides stock shipments and delivery/pickup services to the smaller warehouses, which are satellites of the main location.

But the situation in a large operation such as Webvan is that you get some of the locations becoming union-based, while others remain unorganized. This is really due to two things: the efforts of local unions to organize the workers; and the response of the workers themselves. It takes a certain type of person to organize a company, it's not easy work sometimes, and sometimes the employees themselves may be unresponsive, for whatever reason.

P: Some of the assertions in my reading material is that the unions are not actively working to organize the employees of ecommerce or attempting to get the ecommerce contracts. What do you have to say about that?

F: Well, with a lot of these companies, they will subcontract out to the unions to provide certain services to them. Say a company sets up to do web sales, they set up a catalog on the web. They may link up with a warehouse union locally that can store and stock all of their catalog items. Then they may want to do the delivery themselves, or they may contract out the delivery, as well. But whoever they contract out to is going to have to administer the billing, and the accounts management, and the time it takes to deliver the items in question, etc.

So, quite often the companies or unions doing the subcontracting will have their administrative services in a separate location from the warehouses and other services. So, again, you get down to the question of how many of these different locations and services are part of a union, and what parts have a history of not being organized, or organized with some success, and also, again, the people doing the organizing. It takes a certain amount of mettle, and perserverance; these are the main qualities of a successful organizer. It may be just one or two people, or it may be several. If these people do not appear, or they appear briefly and then move on, or if the workplace itself remains unresponsive from a worker perspective, then organizing within some part of a company, old or new, could take a very long time.

P: What are your future plans around the ecommerce warehouse industry? I see some new styles of delivery services taking place currently, as far as companies like Kozmo.com that do delivery of essentially whatever the customer wants, in under an hour. Do you have any response as to how this will affect expectations within the delivery industry overall?

F: Well, it won't really affect the companies that already have their contracts set up, and that do more large scale warehousing and delivery. What you’re going to find more with companies like Kozmo, and that you already find taking place, is that they’ll be using other people to provide the delivery, such as bike messengers used to do when it was business-to-business and they would just be delivering somebody’s important documents.

P: Yeah, I've noticed the Bike Messengers' Union is here in the same building as you guys (ILWU Local 250). So you think that they're going to have more involvement with the ecommerce industry than they do now?

F: Sure, well they are already involved with it. But the situation in an increasingly urban environment is that if people want something delivered quickly, they’re better off using bikes or motorscooters to do it, because these are the best types of vehicles for getting around when you have traffic jams all day long.

Tune in next week for Part 2 of “E-What?”. I will be interviewing Chris Johnson, research analyst for the I.L.W.U. International.


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