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Strike! Technology workers show growing unrest

Published on March 8, 2000
on, Inc.

There's more than coffee brewing in the Pacific Northwest

There's a general sense of unrest brewing in the minds of the caffeine-buzzed technology workers around Seattle. Some are unhappy about unequal benefits, long hours, and an uneven work-life balance, despite the massive profits of their employers. They're mad enough to strike and organize collective bargaining units.

Their strikes come at a time of unprecedented and dynamic economic growth. Unemployment is low and labor unions are generally out of favor, especially among independent-minded technology workers. Techies take home the economic prizes. They have access to potentially lucrative stock options, they command high salaries, and they enjoy casual work environments, flexible work hours, membership at the company gym, and subsidized meals at the company gourmet cafeteria.

Who needs a union, right? Apparently several thousand tech workers around Seattle do.

On February 15, 17,000 engineers and technical workers at Boeing walked off the job to express their displeasure with their employment contracts. Now entering its fourth week, the surprising action by the 56-year-old Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) is one of the largest white-collar strikes in the private sector in US history. SPEEA represents 23,000 workers at Boeing. This is only the second strike by SPEEA members; the first, which took place in 1993, lasted only a day, and was basically ineffective.

The issues this time run much deeper, says SPEEA general counsel Phyllis Rogers. There's a growing feeling among Boeing's technical workers that their company no longer values them. Take salaries, for example: Boeing techies are paid well below the industry standard. The other highly emotional issue is that Boeing is cutting benefit packages, including health care and workforce training.

Boeing's culture has changed since the $13.3 billion merger with McDonnell Douglas that was announced in December 1996. The changes have hit long-term Boeing employees the hardest. Even some nonunion Boeing employees have joined the picket line, Rogers says "They're striking because they're angry and they feel disrespected," she says, noting that this is not just a matter of money. "There are people in the strike line who make $100,000 a year right next to those who make $30,000."

The move against Boeing is the most obvious indication of union activity in Seattle, but there are other signs as well. Affiliated with and supported by the Communications Workers of America (, the Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technical Workers (WashTech) - "the voice of the digital workforce" - has been organizing techies since October 1998. The group has been criticizing Microsoft over its working conditions and temporary-worker benefits.

WashTech has 250 dues-paying members (up from 200 in August), and 1,600 people subscribe to its email newsletter. The group, which hopes to add another 250 members by year's end, is busy watching Microsoft after the software giant announced its "365-in 100-out" policy. The policy cuts off temp assignments at 365 days, and bars those temps from further employment at Microsoft until after a 100-day waiting period.

All this labor activity clearly indicates that there's another side to America's economic success story. Not everyone is happy in the new economy. There definitely is a place for union organization of tech workers, just as there may be for medical doctors who began organizing last year over their dissatisfaction with HMOs.

WashTech organizers are fighting to secure the same employment benefits for contract workers that regular Microsoft employees receive. Why, WashTech asks, should contract workers, who toil on the same projects as regular employees, not receive the same vacation pay and access to stock options? Though Boeing and Microsoft are high profile examples, don't expect labor organizing of high-tech workers to become widespread. The brevity and transient nature of many tech assignments makes it tougher for unions to organize workers. Though there are pockets of organizing activity thanks to unions and lobbying groups, the workers themselves aren't rushing to the side of their technology brethren.

In general, support for unions among tech workers is weak. A representative Usenet posting about the Boeing strike tells workers to quit their whining. "You guys want what the machinists have. All I hear from you guys is complaining. Quit complaining. Sissies don't deserve what you currently get," wrote one irate contributor.

Last year a poll of members asked members if they supported the notion of giving stock options to temp workers on long-term assignments. Sixty percent of respondents said no.

The attitude of many workers is: If you don't like your job, you can leave it. Today's worker mobility is unsurpassed. And for those who choose to leave the Boeing family, there's always a start-up beckoning with stock options.

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david southgate
writing for living.