Internet

Norma Rae of the Net

Retired legal secretary Cheryl Carter looks at the sweatshop conditions Webmasters often endure and decides to build a trade union.

Cheryl Carter, a retired legal secretary from New Jersey, has a vision for the creators and keepers of Web sites all over the world: to organize them.

Carter contends the conditions facing Webmasters make them prime candidates for a labor union: unpaid overtime, unsatisfactory work environments, computer-related stress injuries:. That situation may not describe the working conditions every Webmaster sees, and some of them may have no interest in joining a union. But Carter thinks there is sufficient demand.

After putting away her typewriter years ago, this former Ms. New Jersey started an Internet development and consulting firm called CherylNet in 1995.

Carter has little experience in organizing workers or staking out picket lines. But she saw the need for a trade group, especially for contract workers, and started the International United Webmasters' Association early this month.

There already are groups such as NASA Webmasters and the Webmasters' Guild, based in Cambridge, Massachusets, which hold conventions or put out newsletters. Carter wants her effort to be different.

"It's going to end up as a union," she said. "We're going to have health benefits available for them, in addition to conventions and shows, and a IUWA Webmaster Visa card. We'll put together a legal department and pension plans."

Before Carter and her business partner, Bob Holland, can get the union going, they need to stir up interest. They are building a coalition, partly by contacting states with Webmaster associations.

A Net Norma Rae of sorts, Carter says all you need to start a union is people who have the same trade and similar needs. She defines a Webmaster as a person who is responsible for the technical care and appearance of a Web site with specific access to perform such tasks. Even if the job market continues to grow for Webmasters in the corporate world, she says, contract workers will still need health plans and fair wages.

"I would like to see a basic wage like the guilds have," she said. "We'll became an association and then unionize to protect ourselves from being used and abused."