IBM Layoffs Continue, Could Spur Union Effort

The IBM layoffs that began earlier in 2009 started anew on March 26, called Black Thursday by [email protected], which is pushing for greater union representation at IBM. By the time this round of layoffs is done, IBM will have cut nearly 10,000 jobs, according to the union.

It's on again at IBM. As expected, the layoffs that began earlier in 2009 started anew on March 26, which [email protected], an organization pushing for union representation at IBM, is referring to as "Black Thursday."

And black, or bleak, it has been for IBM employees, with [email protected] identifying nearly 1,700 workers cut in one division alone. The IBM cuts are coming across the board in areas such as IBM Global Business Services, Global Technology Services and Application Services-the division where 1,674 jobs were eliminated.

Lee Conrad, national coordinator of the [email protected], said the organization expects job cuts in the range of 4,000 to 5,000. If IBM hits that larger number, the company will have cut almost 10,000 positions since the beginning of 2009.

With nearly 400,000 workers, that number as a percentage comes out to smaller cuts than have been proposed by other large companies such as Sun Microsystems and Microsoft, which have proposed job cuts of 6,000 and 5,000 workers, respectively. Sun employs around 33,000 workers and Microsoft around 90,000. But how do you make that comparison mean anything to someone who has worked decades at one of America's stalwart companies and has just lost his or her job? You don't. And you can't.

As one former IBMer who lost his job on March 26 said on the [email protected] comments site:

"Just got whacked today. Let's call it what it is, a firing. A layoff means that at some time we'd be hired back, and that ain't going to happen. I have 35 years of service but 19 was grandfathered in when IBM bought the company I had worked for. I just turned 57. For most of my career I was rated above average (2+) and some average (2), but never in all my working years was I rated below average (3), and on my last review that's what I received, so I knew the target was on my back. I make less than 70k so money is not the issue. But, like other people have written, ratings, skills, length of service, 60 hr work weeks don't mean anything, when upper mgt says heads have to roll, lower mgt has to roll the dice to see who gets whacked because all depts are at bare bones cream of the crop workers. I will at least have some money coming in from the pension but not a full pension because it is offset from the other company I once worked for. And that pension I can't touch until I'm 59 for partial, and 65 for full. I guess now I'll have time to go back to school and learn the Indian or Polish or Spanish or....... language and set up a company that will translate helpdesk calls. Or maybe I'll just join the circus. A real circus not the IBM one I got canned from."

One commenter listed a group where IBM workers who have been laid off-or caught in what IBM refers to as an RA (Resource Action)-can go for advice:

"There is a Yahoo Group for RA'ed folks at Browse through it and you can see some good advice/comments from the folks hit in the previous RA batch, in Feb."

Another commenter weighed in calling for IBM employees to further organize:

"For those of you who didn't get the call today, the worst thing you can do is sit back and say 'Whew - missed that bullet.' That's what all 10,000 of us laid off in Jan and today have said in the past. It's only a matter of time. Your chances of retiring from IBM are about nil. You've got two choices - either find another job with a company with integrity or organize to protect your job at IBM."

That is a key issue being raised time and again amid the onslaught of job cuts. The recession has been a monster, and the technology sector has not been spared. Unionization will give the workers representation and a more powerful voice. Yet, in this economic and political environment, just how much can a union do? Just look at what is happening to daily newspapers across the country, where unions are certainly helping employee causes but can only do so much in light of falling revenues and outright losses.

However, IBM does not have that problem. Indeed, IBM has been among the tech sector standouts, garnering profits of $4.4 billion in its fourth-quarter earnings announced in January, an increase of 12 percent over the same period a year before-which some claim was earned on the backs of laid-off workers and offshored jobs.

So the folks at [email protected] see organization as vital for the IBM workers. [email protected] is affiliated with CWA (Communications Workers of America) and is an organization representing IBM employees but does not have collective bargaining power.

In a letter discussing the organization's goals Conrad said, "One of the most common questions asked of the [email protected] by IBM employees is, 'When are we going to have a union and when is the vote?'"

In the letter, Conrad acknowledged the difficulties with labor laws and the political climate regarding unions, and added:

"But regardless of all the difficulty IBM workers and workers throughout the US still believe in the right to form Unions and have a voice in the workplace.So what do we do? We build the [email protected] site-by-site, office-by-office, worker-by-worker. We organize for the long haul and when roadblocks are erected, we find a different path.One of those different paths is what is called a non-majority union, and that is what the [email protected] is. Even with that definition there is still a lack of understanding of who and what we are. The confusion lies in the term "union.""

Describing the [email protected] organization, Conrad said:

"The IBM union- [email protected]/CWA Local 1701- is a nationwide membership organization of IBM employees, retirees as well as outsourced/sold off IBM employees and contractors. Our members are IT specialists, manufacturing workers, engineers, programmers, software developers, SSR's, and even scientists. Many of our members are mobile or work from home. We are part of the Communications Workers of America, a 700,000-member organization. The Alliance has 6000 supporters and 450 dues paying members located in every State and we can proudly say that IBM has employees with union cards in their wallet. We are a democratic organization, governed by Officers and a council of chapter delegates, all elected by our dues paying members. Our basic principle is that only by standing together with your fellow employees can you hope to keep the benefits you still have, restore the benefits you lost and address key concerns in the workplace like off-shoring, job security and working hours. We believe that organizations like the Alliance and similar non-majority unions are in the forefront of re-defining the word union and employee activism, while also expanding the Labor Movement."

Getting to the crux of the issue, Conrad said, "While our ultimate goal is a union contract, there is much that can and must be done right now. Our message to our co-workers in IBM is that there is no need to be discouraged that we have not sought or won a union recognition vote through the NLRB. Simply put, we are a union as defined by Section 7 of the NLRA [National Labor Relations Act] and we will act accordingly. We believe that workers standing together can be very effective."

Another description of the organization on the [email protected] site said:

"The [email protected] is a union, because 'union' simply means an organization of employees who seek to improve their conditions at work. There are however, two simultaneous strategies which the Alliance is pursuing to improve work at IBM. One is to immediately press IBM management, Congress, and the courts to correct injustices at IBM. For example, efforts over the pension plan and overtime policies are two examples of this type of strategy. The second strategy is to build support for collective bargaining which will enable us to eventually win an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board and to ultimately guarantee all our rights and benefits in a legally-binding contract."