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Looking for the union label— on software

Published in August 1999
on Techies.Com

Technology workers from East to West want collective bargaining

Tired of substandard wages, too much overtime, and no vacation or benefits, technology temp workers and independents are joining medical doctors in their pursuit of union representation.

In October 1998, the Washington Alliance of Technical Workers (WashTech) became the first tech union to affiliate with the powerful Communications Workers of America (CWA). Since then, 200 people have joined WashTech. Most of them work at Microsoft, says WashTech founder Marcus Courtney.

For four years, Courtney, a former quality engineer, was a temp worker in the Seattle area. Half of that time was spent temping at Microsoft via Volt, an agency subcontracting for another agency, Tad Adecco. At Microsoft, Courtney— a test engineer on Windows 98, Office 98, and Windows 2000— worked 55 to 60 hours a week, earning $18.15 to $18.72 per hour. He was one of 6,500 other temps at the software behemoth.

At Microsoft, he noticed full-time, permanent employees there made more money doing the same work. They also had a full range of benefits, including 401(k) and stock options, none of which Courntey received.

"These agencies are solely designed to launder paychecks for [technology companies] so they don't have to provide benefits. It's Microsoft's responsibility to make sure their employees have benefits," says Courtney. To its credit, Volt, a Fortune 1000 company, typically provides 401(k) and health benefits, according to a source at Volt's New York headquarters, which handles employee benefits. Companies such as Microsoft can contractually require temp agencies to provide additional benefits, said the source.

Courtney, who never had a paid vacation in his two years at Microsoft, says Microsoft accepted the minimum package. These inequities, as well as legislative pressures for the Washington Software and Digital Media Alliance, a lobby for Washington's software industry that brought about a 1997 law exempting tech companies from paying overtime to workers, prompted him to form WashTech. (Federal law, however, mandates that hourly workers making less than $27.63 per hour be paid overtime.)

Tech union history

Unionizing tech workers isn't new. The Seattle Professional Engineering Employees Association (SPEEA), an independent labor union representing about 25,000 Boeing employees, has been around for more than 50 years. Membership is likely to rise, says SPEEA general counsel Phyllis Rogers, with the addition of McDonnell Douglas workers who joined Boeing after a merger announced in December 1996. SPEEA plans to gain additional clout by affiliating with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE).

The CWA has its roots in the telephone industry. Its membership today comprises workers at AT&T, regional Bell telephone companies, GTE, NBC and ABC televisions networks, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the state of New Jersey, and major newspapers (because the Newspaper Guild was subsumed into CWA in 1995), says CWA director of field operations Eric Geist.

WashTech's potential interested CWA, which now has more HTMLers in its ranks since newspapers started launching Web sites. CWA's involvement with Internet workers and HTML coders is what interested WashTech. "We're recognizing that the people who work in the high tech field on the Web are a lot more like [Newspaper Guild] members than the traditional CWA members," says Geist. "We feel like we have the connection there. It's a matter of putting in some time and working with people who have a need for some voice in the workplace."

Limited interest

Labor movement experts acknowledge that tech workers haven't been on the radar screen of organized labor, which largely has had little interest in organizing smaller groups, preferring bigger blocks in the textile, service, banking, and finance industries, says professor Joseph Wilson, director of the Graduate Center for Worker Education at Brooklyn College. Organizing techies isn't the easiest of jobs: "You don't find [technologists] in general in large concentrations, not like the steel workers with 10,000 workers in one location," says Wilson.

The transient nature of many technology jobs, the high number of independent contractors, and relatively high pay also make it difficult to organize these workers. In addition, jurisdictional disputes within the union movement clog things up. Should tech workers be in CWA or the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)? Add a general uneasiness about labor unions, Republican politics, and rounding up techies "starts to look like trying to heard Chihuahuas," says Wilson.

Political climate tends to be anti-union

The current political climate is generally anti-union and has been since President Ronald Reagan broke up the air traffic controllers strike in the '80s.

On a federal level, tech workers also have people like Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) to worry about. Mack sponsored S.1924, the Technical Workers Fairness Act of 1998, a bill that would have lifted the IRS ruling that banned companies from asking independent workers to be bodies in seats punching a time clock. The bill died in committee and wasn't reintroduced in 1999, though the same provision may be added to the Senate Finance Committee's July tax bill, according to Mack spokeswoman Nancy Segerdahl. (As we went to production, the measure hadn't been added.)

It's not all bad news. In May 1999, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a previous court decision ruling that Microsoft had illegally denied independent workers and temps access to stock options. The court saw Microsoft's indies and permatemps as a non-autonomous group, building on the IRS's ruling that independents cannot be treated like full-time workers with regimented on-site hours.

"What this ruling does is limit an employer's ability to misclassify an employee as a temp worker," says Steven Festor, an attorney at Bendich, Stobaugh & Strong, the firm representing the Microsoft temps, as quoted in a article.

Challenges to organizing

Tech unionizing challenges are proving surmountable. The workers are starting to embrace the concept; associations such as WashTech are bringing techies' concerns to policymakers, and the Internet, a preferred communications tool for technologists, makes it easier to organize and inform workers. "People are beginning to recognize that there's value to having a contract," says Rogers. "It really is a way to have a collective voice. All of the people at the top have contracts, so there's no reason that people in the workforce shouldn't have one, too."

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david southgate
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