High technology discovers unions

Summary:The work force at a handful of dot-coms and other technology companies is either already organized or sampling unionization.

A decidedly Old Economy refrain is being heard with increasing frequency in the high-tech industry: Workers, unite.

Although labor organizing efforts are nascent and active at only a handful of workplaces, companies and employees across the industry are following at least three test cases closely to measure prevailing attitudes throughout the rank and file. The most recent efforts are under way at Amazon.com, IBM and electronics retailer Etown.com.

While each organizing drive addresses issues specific to its company, workers are generally pushing for better wages and benefits, job security, and protection against seemingly arbitrary schedules and management decisions--familiar themes behind U.S. labor movements of a century ago. The reason they are occurring now, many believe, is the free-fall in stock prices that has brought hard times on people who may have never seen a recession in their adult lives.

"Etown, because it's the first, will set a certain tone for how organizing is going to go in high-tech and dot-com companies," said Bill Wyland, an organizer with the Northern California Media Workers Guild. "We're going to learn from this campaign. That's going to translate into other campaigns, win or lose."

History shows that efforts such as those at Etown are predictable whenever an industry and its work force matures, creating distance and disparity between staff and management. But high-tech businesses, especially start-ups, largely thought themselves immune to unionization because they offered stock options as incentives to work long hours and make other sacrifices for the risk of hitting pay dirt.

Not an assembly line
This gold-rush mentality may persist even after the dot-com meltdown because the technology work force differs in myriad ways from its assembly line counterparts of previous generations. Workers in the digital economy are relatively skilled, better educated, and often imbued with a Darwinian philosophy that seems to contradict such bedrock union notions as equal pay for all--which presents formidable challenges to labor recruiters.

Take Tim Colson, a software engineer from Milpitas, Calif., who says working conditions in high-tech jobs are "generally excellent."

"About the only detriment I can think of are the long hours, but usually you are compensated in some way for the effort," Colson said. "And because there are so many job opportunities, if a particular environment isn't acceptable, you can simply move on."

The three companies facing labor initiatives strongly oppose the efforts, saying unions would inhibit flexibility, a necessary trait for a competitive high-tech company. This is especially important to smaller companies threatened by extinction in today's marketplace.

Etown is a particularly urgent case because, unlike Amazon and IBM, it has relatively few resources or reserves to see it through difficult times.

Robert Heimblem, chief executive of the San Francisco company, blames the union effort in part on naive, inexperienced employees who had unrealistic expectations. Many thought they would make a quick buck working at a dot-com and were not prepared for the economic crunch, he said. "They came to work with stars in their eyes," he said.

But union organizers say Etown employees are not that much different from any other employees, experienced or not. Among their complaints are erratic schedules, pay raises that were promised but not given and a constantly changing business model.

The labor movement at Etown is the furthest along among the three companies, having already won approval to hold a union vote sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board. Originally scheduled for Jan. 12, that vote was delayed after union allegations that Etown management was illegally interfering with workers' rights to organize.

"It's basic to workers that they want decent benefits and wages and a say in how the business is run," Wyland said.

Etown workers may be further emboldened by the pro-labor climate of San Francisco, which has one of the highest percentages of unionized employees in the country. But many are looking northward to Seattle-based Amazon as a more significant test, given its industry leadership and public profile.

Union activity at Amazon (amzn) dates back to 1998, when some of the company's employees joined the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, a high-tech labor group in Washington state.

But the current organizing drive did not begin in earnest until mid-November last year, when some 50 employees from Amazon's customer service center in Seattle met with officials from WashTech to discuss plans for organizing their 400-person department. Chief among their complaints and worries: job security, mandatory overtime shifts and erratic schedules.

Concurrently, the United Food and Commercial Workers launched a campaign to unionize workers in Amazon's eight U.S.-based distribution centers. That effort has been slow going, focusing on educating workers about unions and what such organizations can do for workers. To date, the effort to have workers sign union cards has not yet begun, though that would be the first step toward holding an election for union representation.

Amazon has launched a vigorous campaign of its own, holding mandatory meetings with employees to address union questions, instructing managers on how to respond to organizing efforts, and posting a list of frequently asked questions for employees about unions that organizers saw as one-sided.

"We just don't think it's going to be in the best interest of our company or our employees," Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith said.

In the face of Amazon's campaign, organizers have pushed back their schedule indefinitely, instead focusing on educating their co-workers.

"There's a growing sense among workers that they need some kind of representation on the job," said Marcus Courtney, WashTech's co-founder. "They don't understand that the only way they are going to get representation is through a union."

Timing may also be working against labor movements at Amazon and elsewhere. Workers throughout the industry have all heard reports of layoffs and other drastic budget-cutting moves at high-tech companies.

"The dot-com industry is in a very precarious position right now," said John Challenger, president of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "Unionization may knock those companies off."

Beyond dot-coms
But labor issues are not confined to the dot-coms. In response to a dispute over pension plan changes in 1999, IBM workers formed Alliance@IBM, an informal organization affiliated with the Communications Workers of America.

Alliance has not organized any particular units of Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM (ibm) and does not have the power to collectively bargain for workers. But the organization says it did successfully pressure IBM to make changes in the pension plan that affected some 65,000 workers.

Since then, interest in Alliance has faded. IBM spokeswoman Jana Weatherby said the organization has made little headway beyond the pension issue "by their own admission."

The association is still active in signing up new members and hearing employee concerns, countered Lee Conrad, national organizer for Alliance.

For all the talk about all the jobs available for computer programmers, many high-tech employees--such as those who work in semiconductor manufacturing plants--do not have the same kind of mobility as their white-collar colleagues, he said.

"I think people are looking for some sense of stability and some sense of protection," Conrad said. "Some things just haven't changed that much."

Uniting on a whole new front
Organized labor leaders view the high-tech work force as an opportunity to revitalize union representation as a whole, which has declined steadily in the United States as its advantages in white-collar businesses have remained unclear.

The result, if successful, could be an entirely different kind of labor union for the 21st century, one that is more appropriate for office workers seeking child care rather than coal miners fighting black-lung disease.

"This is a sunrise industry," said Katie Quan, labor policy specialist at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's quite important for the labor movement to get a foothold and grow with it."

To be sure, organized labor is not entirely absent in technology companies. Telecommunications companies such as Verizon Communications (vz) and aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin (lmt) have unions. In addition, e-tailers often employ the services of unionized delivery and warehouse workers.

But the computing industry and its software and Internet offshoots have largely avoided unionization. Unlike more traditional laborers, such as autoworkers, who tend to stay at one job for a long time, high-tech workers change jobs more often. Any widespread labor movement would also need to address the high share of temporary, conditional or seasonal workers that populate the ranks of high technology far more than traditional industries.

"I think unionization would ruin the free spirit and innovation in the high-tech industry," said Alvin Bost, a freelance Web site designer in Greensboro, N.C., who formerly worked in a unionized workplace that was marked by bitter dissension between employees and management. "It would be terrible for people like me."

Others say that while most technology workers are well compensated, unions are needed to check the growing power of corporations in the American economy. David Moffat, who develops instructional software for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said high-tech workers are not immune from the trends that spurred labor movements in other industries, such as decreases in benefits and exportation of work overseas.

"Assemblers, information workers and many other segments of the 'Information Economy' are in a position similar to that of industrial workers at the turn of the last century," Moffat said. "Corporations have the upper hand in determining when, where and for how much employees will work."

Courtney and others suggest that in the near future, high-tech unions will probably look like Alliance or WashTech: open to all workers, including temporary ones; loose-knit; and able to represent workers even without having collective bargaining power.

At the same time, he added, such unions may be the one constant thing in a high-tech worker's life. Although they may switch companies and change positions, they will always be a part of the union. Instead of getting benefits from companies, which would change with each company an employee joined, the union would provide constant job training and benefits for workers.

But the road to unionization will continue to be a tough one. Forming a union is difficult even under the best of circumstances, experts say. Union votes are only successful in about half of all cases, and only a fraction of organizing drives make it to a vote.

Many of the issues that have spurred unionization in the past are now regulated by the government, said Victor Schachter, an employment law attorney with Palo Alto, Calif.-based Fenwick & West. And no matter how strong the union, it won't be able to stop mass layoffs if they become necessary to a company's survival.

"I think employees are going to be very reluctant (to organize) when they see the obligation of dues and the possibility of strikes and the realities of what collective bargaining is," Schachter said. "I believe in the end, very few, if any, of these companies will find that they have union-represented employees."

Topics: Amazon, IBM, IT Employment

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.