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Tech Industry

Union leader targets tech industry

Marcus Courtney, organizer for the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, believes some form of labor union will shape the tech industry of the 21st century.

    SEATTLE--Marcus Courtney knows he faces an uphill battle: Executives have assailed his fledgling effort to unionize technology workers at companies such as Amazon.com and Microsoft, and membership ranks have grown slowly.

    But as the organizer for the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, Courtney remains optimistic. He believes that some form of labor union will shape the tech industry of the 21st century, just as the United Auto Workers played an integral role in the 20th century American automobile industry. And he intends to be at the heart of it.

    The Montana native and former contract worker for Adobe and Microsoft sat down for quesadillas and Coke with CNET News.com reporter Rachel Konrad at Bridges Bar & Grill on the banks of Lake Union in Seattle, just across the street from WashTech's eastside headquarters.

    CNET News.com: Some would have said you were doing OK as a contractor at Microsoft in 1997, getting paid $18 an hour and paying $25 per month to the state for catastrophic medical insurance. What got you thinking about unions?
    Courtney: You read articles about the more you save when you're younger and how that makes a huge difference when you're older. If you start saving at 26 vs. 30, it can mean the difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And here you're working in this industry where there's no matching plan, no 401(k) plan. It was like you were completely on your own--it was Silicon Jungle out there.

    I realized the whole idea of contracting wasn't that you could step up to a permanent job. I had been doing it for almost four years, with no end in sight. You could literally contract your entire career...and I thought that would kind of suck.

    This was supposed to be a good deal, but everybody was kind of whispering about all these frustrations. I started looking to see if anyone had looked into the issues and if anyone had done anything, and there really wasn't. It made me get in touch with the researchers, and they said, "That's happening in that industry? I thought everyone was getting rich and loaded!"

    How did those frustrations evolve into WashTech, a division of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) Local 37083?
    I hooked up with Mike Blain (another Microsoft contractor) in the fall of '97, and we thought of creating an e-zine called Tempscape that would deal with contractors at Microsoft--kind of like a double entendre with Microsoft and Netscape...Then in November 1997, the Washington Software Alliance was lobbying the state Department of Labor & Industry to change overtime rules to exempt high-tech contractors to get paid time and a half...without any workers knowing about it. It was published in the newspaper, and then when people heard about it, a big campaign erupted and it started generating a lot of e-mails.

    (Management) is implying that there's economic security in (stock options)...When that promise doesn't work out, and the workers have put in 50 or 60 hours a week, what do they get? They get a layoff notice. We realized there was a bigger issue...and as we got people together, and started reading the e-mails, we started seeing people saying, "We need a union!" We started calling them up and e-mailing them, saying, "Hey, we're getting together and looking at this issue. Would you be willing to help organize?" That led to more and more people who wanted to come to meetings, and the CWA became more interested in what we were doing. We formed WashTech and created a Web site, started getting press, and we were off and running. We officially went public in May of '98.

    But in well over two years you have only signed up 250 dues-paying members and another 2,000 who subscribe to your free e-mail newsletter. The CWA still pays your salary and underwrites your organization drive. How successful have you been?
    In terms of the solid, absolute membership number we're very small. But in terms of the amount of people we reach and people who believe that WashTech really represents their values or ideas, it's probably much greater than 250. People I don't think really realize and understand how difficult it is to build organizations to represent them around workplace issues...It's certainly vastly different than, like, creating a Sierra Club or Save the Whales club, because people have so much more fear about trying to address the economic issues they face on the job because of the power that employers have over them.

    CWA realizes that this is a growing thing in the labor movement. For the institution of labor to be relevant, it needs to organize workers in the New Economy. It was the same challenge they faced at the turn of the century. At first they wanted to reject organizing at the auto plants. They said, "That's not important." But visionary people said..."Workers' interests are important, and if we don't organize it we're not going to be relevant."

    It's the same exact challenge that I think labor in a broader perspective faces today: It's pitted between those that believe that workers don't want to be organized or they won't ever be interested in labor, vs. those that recognize what the true issues are, the importance in terms of making sure labor has power and power in the New Economy, where a huge amount of wealth is being created and a lot of workers are being left out of it.

    At Amazon, the budding organization drive has emanated from the customer service representatives--not the programmers. At Microsoft, many are technical editors and writers and content people--again, not the programmers. Will unions catch on with these people who make up the core of the technology industry?
    Some workers are more interested than others. Your high-end programmers that are making six-figure salaries are not probably the people interested in organizing--and that might change. It depends. But where we have the most interest is...technical editors, technical writers, graphic designers, graphic artists, customer service representatives--people that are certainly treated as if they don't contribute as much to this high-tech economy as a hot-shot Internet jockey but yet the industry can't work without them. They are absolutely vital.

    Clearly, especially contract workers and customer service, their issues are very similar. They talk about low pay, job security, access to training or to build their career--all those kinds of issues--and it's the same common theme, not necessarily the identification that they're a programmer at Microsoft. What's unifying these workers is the idea that they're all in the same boat when it comes to basic issues that are being created because the industry they work in is doing things vastly different in terms of the revolution of the workplace. And they have no voice at the table of how this industry really works and what its effects are and that the fundamental question that people are afraid to ask that we're raising in this industry is the fairness issue.

    You compare this movement with that of the auto industry in the 1930s, when poison fumes induced seizures, extreme heat caused fainting, and metal presses literally crushed workers. It seems like the biggest issues for the tech industry are schedule changes, meager severance packages, and lack of benefits and stock options for contingent workers. Is this really management abuse?
    I think there's a growing recognition that in terms of the actual decision-making process, in terms of being able to actually build a future within this industry, it's very difficult to do. It's a very volatile industry, and you can see it in this whole dot-com phenomenon: massive layoffs that are happening with sometimes 15 minutes' notice.

    You know, the wealth of the industry has not solved the health care question for contract workers. What is management saying when they give workers stock options that are going to vest over three or four years? They're implying that there's economic security in that, there's a future in that, that you should accept your wages because you're going to get paid off in stock options. When that promise doesn't work out, and the workers have put in 50 or 60 hours a week, what do they get? They get a layoff notice. They have no safety net. There's no accountability to the expectations that the management has given these workers, and if those expectations don't work out, there's no consequences to management.

    The other thing is that you have a very divided work force, between a growing number of contingent workers working through staffing agencies where there are thousands and thousands of these workers who are very important. It's becoming a much more competitive workplace. The whole idea that you could be a technical editor at any high-tech company, working side by side with a full-time (permanent) technical editor...but that some people have benefits, some people don't have options--that's a vastly different situation than workers have ever been faced with, and out of that comes worker-management issues.

    Would you require employers to give bigger severance packages and stock options to temp workers? What specifically would you change about the work contract if you had unions?
    That's a very good question, and in a lot of ways an unanswered question...WashTech may have some kind of broader labor agreement with contingent workers out there setting the standards--kind of like a meld between a building trade model and a traditional union model. With building trades, you get your training through the union, your benefits through the union, your representation. Employers pay into those benefit funds. That's something that can happen in this industry.

    The great thing about that in the long term is the mobility factor. Right now what happens if you change jobs is you have a completely different set of benefits...Over the course of four or five years, the benefits come at a huge cost to the individual worker. You might have more money over the short term, but people are not thinking long term.

    Some would say that if workers are unhappy with their current employer, they should quit and go elsewhere, not join a union. How do you respond to them?
    If you cannot find a sense of security in the fastest-growing part of the economy, and you're college educated or you have technical skills, and you're told that these are the jobs of the future and if you don't get in you're going to be left behind, and then you enter the industry and still have a sense of being left behind--that's when people say, "Look, this industry needs to be reformed."

    This isn't an industry based on some kind of new value system. That's what's so much being promoted--that this economy is all about new values and respecting the individual, empowering the individual: Why would they ever want a voice when they have stock options?...It's clear management is completely willing to accept someone with a nose ring, but all of a sudden that employee with a nose ring wants a real say over how things are going, they think it's 1910 all over again.

    What's your goal for WashTech over the next half-decade?
    I think in terms of actually building membership numbers, it's very difficult and there are a lot of obstacles and challenges. One of the biggest is that many workers are very afraid. I think, in three or five years, I hope we really make workers feel empowered and give workers rights to speak out and organize if they choose around workplace issues. They can really do it and exercise the right of freedom of association.

    There needs to be a lot more organizing happening, and it can't just be in Seattle. The issues workers face are the same...at Amazon and in the Silicon Alley. There needs to be a broader echo-effect in the other high-tech centers so in three to five years we see more organizing and outreach...The more and more the industry grows, the more important this issue becomes. You know, the wealth of the industry has not solved the health care question for contract workers. The wealth of the industry has not solved job security for Amazon workers.

    What might a recession do to the unionization drive?
    It's going to allow us to make our case and be a benefit to us...Workers are going to be much more focused on economic issues. It's going to give us much more of an opportunity to highlight the real high-tech economy that is really growing up, not the mythical economy that so many people always want to report about. It's obviously been true that workers have cashed in big after four or five years, but those people are maybe 10 percent (of the total tech work force).

    You have mentioned this "mythical economy" several times. Can you give readers a look behind the glamour of high-tech?
    Amazon's a great example. Every single senior-level executive at Amazon has a contract with the board that specifically outlines the terms and positions under which they'll work--so much so that some executives are getting million-dollar cash bonuses after six or seven months in their employment. Some have gotten million-dollar bonuses because they're around and someone thinks they're a nice guy. And then customer service workers at Amazon make between $11 and $15 an hour, who are college educated, many with master's degrees, have gone into work with their boss saying, "Start in customer service and you'll have an opportunity to grow with the company. We're going to give you stock options and that's why we aren't going to pay you as much...We're building a long-term future for you."

    And after two to three years, when the stock price has declined and they lay off 150 workers with one hour's notice, they're sending more than 100 jobs in customer service to India. They're stopping hiring full-time workers in Seattle. And then workers feel they don't have an opportunity for full-time advancement. They're saying: "Wait a second. This is happening this way because we have no power to raise these issues with management. We've raised them but management doesn't listen."

    That's the economic pressure many workers are under--work harder, faster, longer, take a long-term view. But many workers don't know if they're going to be around next week let along next year. But none of those promises apply to the upper management team. They have a completely different deal.

    It sounds like lots of people who went to work for tech companies had grossly unrealistic expectations of how much money they would make, assuming that they could become overnight millionaires just like the top executives. Isn't this more about faulty logic than unionization?
    People go to work where jobs are being created. You can say that, but it doesn't mean that the issues that are happening aren't legitimate...We're talking about what's really happening to people going to work and what it's really like, and is this industry treating workers fairly in terms of their rights on the job? It's their long-term economic futures. These issues need to be addressed, and they can only be addressed when workers have some real voice into their futures.