Tech Workers: Union Challenge

 
 
By eweek  |  Posted 2001-01-22 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Organizers try to get in step with New Economy.

After years of seemingly futile organizing efforts, labor leaders are hoping that the dot-com crash and some unique new training partnerships with high-tech giants will make this the year they can turn the tide and bring the union label into the New Economy.

Sure, you can buy PCs assembled entirely by union labor. Two small companies, including an electrical contractor in suburban Chicago, sell machines created with the labor of employees represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

But outside of the wireless telecom arms of the Bells, where unions are extending their reach from strongholds of the traditional telephone business, organized labor has made few inroads into high-tech firms. Despite a beefed-up presence in Silicon Valley for the past three years, organized labor has been able to gain little traction in the economys leading sector.

The only two real organizing efforts that labor has undertaken are struggling. One is the much-publicized attempt to organize warehouse and customer service workers at Amazon.com, an effort strongly opposed by company management. The other, at a tiny San Francisco company called Etown.com, has erupted in controversy over layoffs, with the Communications Workers of America calling off a scheduled election at the company this month amid complaints of unfair labor practice.

Against that background, unions are demonstrating new flexibility, reinventing themselves and their missions to meet the challenges of New Economy industries. In one effort, union organizers have turned to the huge numbers of temporary workers upon whom the industry relies heavily, and have used public relations campaigns to improve their lot. And in a growing tactic, unions are creating partnerships with corporations to offer workers high-tech training in such areas as digital network skills.

"Obviously, the labor movement cant do things the way they did 60 or 70 years ago, especially in high-tech," says Marcus Courtney, co-founder of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), a CWA affiliate in Seattle.

Focus on Training

Indeed, it is the training partnership idea that has become a hallmark of union efforts with respect to technology. The CWA, which represents most workers in the long-unionized telephone business, sees training as essential to the long-term future of its current members. Workers who have spent a career in an analog, circuit-switched world will soon be antiques as phone companies and their ilk move to digital, packet-switched networks.

That has caught the eye of one of the biggest names in the digital age, Cisco Systems. In late December, Cisco — which is decidedly not unionized — and the CWA announced a training partnership in the Seattle area that will let CWA members and some people departing military service attend a "virtual" Cisco networking academy and finish in about three months. Thats considerably quicker than the standard classroom approach.

The Cisco deal resulted from dealings at the top between Cisco Chairman John Morgridge, whose company has espoused education and training as top social priorities, and CWA President Morton Bahr, one of the most visible national labor leaders. For both sides, the partnership answered a need: workers who could handle the jobs made possible by devices such as Cisco routers, installed in the switching centers of already unionized telecom companies.

"Were not trying to organize anybody at Cisco," says Jeff Miller, information director at the CWA in Washington, D.C. "But using some of their unique expertise and resources, were able to offer state-of-the-art training to our existing members who might want to . . . get jobs in high-tech industry, or meet the needs of some of our current employers, like SBC Communications."

Cisco acknowledges the "kind of strange partnership" between a labor union and a company that is unlikely to welcome a front-door organizing effort. Scott Knell, manager of education alliances at Cisco, says he first got to know CWA officials when sitting next to them at Jobs Corps meetings in Washington, all the while looking at them and thinking, "Were on opposite sides of the spectrum."

But gradually, Knell saw a different picture: Soon, either there could be a horde of old-line telecom workers out of jobs, or those workers could become trained to fill jobs installing and maintaining Cisco gear — jobs that now often suffer from a lack of qualified applicants.

"In Seattle, the biggest job for the union isnt organizing; its retraining," Knell says. "If you dont retrain your people, youre not going to have a union."

Labor is hardly turning from collective bargaining to training, however. First, unions hope that retraining efforts will create a migration of union members into the high-tech economy, thus changing the attitude of workers in the field toward unions. "We think it will make us higher-profile in high-tech businesses," Miller says.

And WashTech hopes to extend its reach in Washington state, building on its initial success in obtaining improvements in the lot of "permatemp" workers at Microsoft. After publicity over the long tenure of the workers without any of the benefits accorded full-time employees, Microsoft agreed to settle a class-action suit with the workers for $97 million. WashTech hopes to encourage other temp workers to join the union as well; workers who "identify themselves with a skill they have" can belong to the union, yet "move around the industry." That can build organized labor into something "similar to a hiring hall or guild structure" within high-tech, similar to efforts by some freelance writers to create a guild that deals with employers through standard contracts.

Tough Road

Labor has failed to make significant inroads in high-tech for a number of reasons, including lack of effort by big labor during many of the industrys formative years. But perhaps the two strongest bulwarks against union efforts in high-tech have been the economics of the industry and the culture of its work force.

Technology has been the growth engine of the economy for years, and the jobs in the industry tend to pay well compared with other industry sectors; according to the AeA — formerly the American Electronics Association — the average high-tech salary is 82 percent higher than the private-sector average. That eliminates one of the major issues that has attracted unions into workplaces.

Tech jobs also traditionally offer many benefits that unionized workers lack: flexible work schedules, high-end health-care plans, liberal vacations, company-matched individual retirement accounts and, most significantly, stock option packages. And with few exceptions, in the past decade or more, workers who didnt like the deal at their current employer only had to cross town — sometimes merely the street — to quickly get a better deal from a competitor.

The culture of high-tech, too, is at odds with the traditional "management vs. labor" picture of trade unions. With flattened management structures more responsibility rests with individual technology workers, affording them a greater degree of control over their working environment than assembly line workers. And the philosophy of many in the industry is decidedly individualistic: The same sort of "libertarian," you-win-by-your-own-skills ethic that is the hallmark of much of high-tech management applies to many employees, too.

Until recent slides in the market placed many once-lucrative options "underwater," organizers acknowledge, it was difficult to convince many workers that a union could offer them anything they didnt already enjoy on the job. Now, unions think the dot-com crash, with its layoffs and stock plunges, will create a far more fertile ground for organized labor than ever before.

"The libertarians are seeing those stock options arent going to carry them through," says Erin Tyson Poh, a local representative at the Northern California Media Workers Guild who is helping to organize Etown workers. "They are starting to realize they may need some help."

Wireless Headway

If there is anywhere organized labor has made headway, its in wireless telecom companies such as Verizon Wireless — the wireless division of Verizon Communications, which was formed when Bell Atlantic merged with GTE — and Cingular Wireless, the wireless joint venture of BellSouth and SBC. With tens of thousands of workers nationwide — and with more and more of the telecom business going wireless — the wireless arena has become a battleground for labor.

The wireless industry is still largely nonunion, and companies would rather see it stay that way. They view their industry as being cast from the same mold as the rest of high-tech: fast-paced and very competitive, with constantly changing technology and a nascent market — all of which demands the flexibility in work force size, schedules, locations and pay that is the hallmark of Internet firms.

"The economics are such that if one company is unionized, its at a disadvantage compared to nonunion companies," not just in wage and benefit costs but in efficiency, says Verizon Wireless spokesman Jim Gerace. "We feel strongly about the ability of managers and supervisors to directly affect the work schedules of their employees to make the company more efficient. And thats lost with unionization."

Obtaining union rights at Verizon Wireless was one of the hottest disputes in the August strike by unions against Verizon Communications, in which 85,000 CWA and IBEW members walked off the job for 17 days. As part of the settlement, Verizon Communications management agreed to allow unions to try organizing the companys 10,000 wireless workers and to recognize the union if 55 percent of the workers in a given work group sign cards asking for representation. The agreement takes effect in February, and it gives both the union and the company the right to present their cases freely to employees.

The CWA has gained even more ground at Cingular, signing its first contract with the carrier early this month. The union says it represents about 10,000 of the 30,000 workers at the company; the new contract covers 2,100 of them in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York. The CWA hopes the contract will serve as a model for other wireless negotiations.

Company officials say they and the union agree on one thing: Contracts in wireless cant be modeled on the ones fashioned over the course of the last 60 years with monopoly carriers.

"The [wireless] business itself moves much more quickly than the land-line business has," says Lew Walker, vice president of operations and labor at Cingular. So the company rejects the old union standby of promoting based on seniority, preferring to do it on the basis of merit. "You dont see a lot of seniority clauses in our contracts."

Slow Growing Elsewhere

But unions have no similar base from which to organize hardware, software and Internet companies, so their efforts have proceeded slowly. The initial targets have not been programmers, marketers and other professionals. Instead, unions are after workers who might well have held similar jobs in the traditional economy — customer service representatives and warehouse workers.

Those are the people whom the CWA is trying to organize at Amazon, perhaps the highest-profile effort to date. Both warehouse workers and customer service workers who answer phones complain of pay scales that are too low, work schedules that are too long and stressful, and sometimes minimal stock options that became worthless in last years market slide.

Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, while avoiding criticism of unions generally, says his employees dont need a union because they are all "owners" of the company. And Amazon has actively opposed the organizing effort, which is aimed at getting enough workers to sign cards demanding an election to ratify union representation. The companys efforts, including antiunion literature and tips to managers on how to counter a union drive, earned Amazon a frenzy of negative publicity in December, just before crucial last-minute holiday sales.

Union organizers insist Amazon is a 21st-century company that is still viewing unions with a 19th-century eye. "Theyve spent more money to beat back the union drive than if they would let the workers make a free choice," WashTechs Courtney says. "The CWA has national partnerships for training, and we could create a real partnership and work with the management of Amazon. But they are stuck in the 1890s, and look at the idea of representation the way Andrew Carnegie did."

The unions still look to wage more traditional campaigns, despite the difficulties. At the same time that Etown workers won the right to vote for union representation, the struggling company conducted a series of layoffs. Etown called them cost-cutting measures; the unions called them retaliation for union activity and filed complaints of unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Board. Just two weeks ago, the union called off the election, filing another NLRB complaint and claiming the atmosphere for the election had been poisoned.

The Northern California Media Workers Guilds Poh says the media workers in San Francisco are in the early stages of organizing for elections at several other dot-coms. But she declined to name any, saying that the union expects employer resistance and that the preliminary stages are "very sensitive" times.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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