The Last Mile 

When the Internet grocer Webvan opened a distribution center in East Oakland, it seemed that some of the area's e-commerce riches were beginning to trickle down to street level. Now, employees wonder if the salad days are over.

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Early on, Hedges and the UFCW, as well as the Teamsters, had approached the DC employees about unionizing, but it wasn't until the summer of 2000 that some Webvan employees got serious about organizing. Hedges estimates that about 300 employees signaled their interest, and the unions started coming onto the premises to meet with employees and circulate authorization cards for workers to sign.

Tensions between the unions and Webvan management quickly got ugly. Hedges blasts Webvan as "a company with 21st-century technology and 19th-century labor relations." In February, the Teamsters Local 70 and the UFCW Locals 120 and 870 joined to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board regarding what they claim are union-busting tactics used by Webvan management. Among other complaints, the unions charged that Webvan was illegally prohibiting its employees from approaching unions or from gathering on Webvan property to discuss workplace issues during their free time. The unions also say Webvan prohibited its workers from using company e-mail to send information regarding the unionizing effort.

"They did what most employers typically do--they brought in some consultants who advised them on anti-union tactics, they held meetings and coerced employees not to sign [authorization] cards, they tried to convince them that they didn't need a union to represent them, and that was somewhat effective," says Odus Hall, spokesperson for the Teamsters. "Typically, they argue that 'we're a team and we don't want to interject a third party between the rank-and-file and the management,' but the reality was far from the nirvana idea that they put out there. The reality is like being in the same family, but you're the part of the family that lives on the wrong side of town." Valentine, Sawyer, and others say that Webvan openly discouraged the organizing effort by attaching anti-union notes to workers' paychecks, corralling groups of workers for lectures, and telling employees that they would have to pay exorbitant union dues.

Webvan stoutly denies the unions' claims; Nobile calls their complaints "completely unfounded." "We've encouraged our associates to do whatever they want to do on their own time," she says, although she says that Webvan did tell the unions they weren't allowed on company property due to the hazards of having strange people wander into the highly mechanized DC. "There's some real dangers with people barging in and coming onto the property; that's not acceptable."

Unionizing dot-com workers is a relatively new idea, although there have been semisuccessful attempts at Amazon and E-Town. But Webvan certainly seems to have anticipated the idea--in the company's SEC filing for the year 2000, Webvan listed labor organizing as a possible reason why the company's business plan may not perform as expected. The company's employee handbook explicitly spells out some rules that the unions insist are patently illegal: forbidding the solicitation or distribution of literature by labor or fraternal organizations, either in person or by e-mail, for instance. Currently, the union's charges are under review by the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, DC; the board is expected to issue a complaint within the next few weeks.

Unionizing efforts at the Oakland DC seem to be in something of a hold pattern, given Webvan's uncertain economic fate. Nevertheless, the union reps say they still want to achieve representation for Webvan's current staff so that someone will advocate for them during bankruptcy and closure proceedings, should Webvan go under. "Generally, unrepresented employees are somewhere behind the garbage company and the water company in their claims during a bankruptcy," says Hall dryly. Still, he says, "It's never in our interest for an employer to go out of business. You can't get a collective bargaining agreement with an employer that doesn't exist. So we hope they survive, but it doesn't look good."

Has Webvan reached the end of the road? The company's own independent auditors, Deloitte & Touche, fanned the flames of investor doubt earlier this year by attaching a statement to Webvan's recent SEC 10-K filing saying that the company's recurring losses "raise substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern." April's layoffs lowered morale and occasioned many dire headlines. (The best tend to appear on the

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