Unions a casualty of dot-com shakeout

The economic downturn makes labor efforts in the tough tech world even tougher. Though employment issues persist, unions are largely focusing their energies outside the industry.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
6 min read
Alan Barclay is glad he took on Amazon.com, even though he lost.

The former customer service representative had been trying for months to sign up workers for a union when he and his 400 colleagues got an e-mail from management: Gather your personal belongings and meet in 20 minutes for an announcement.

Barclay knew it was over.

When Amazon announced, as he expected, that it was shutting down the Seattle service center as part of widespread cuts last January, it also killed one of the few nascent efforts to unionize tech workers. Other closely watched efforts that died in 2001 included those at online grocer Webvan and online electronics reviewer Etown.com, both of which ended when the companies went out of business.

The same labor leaders who hailed those efforts in the beginning stages have now mostly given up on trying to organize tech workers, even though employees face far more daunting conditions in the current recession and would ostensibly be more open to organizing.

"Teamsters and (the Communications Workers of America) is a graveyard of bones right now. They haven't succeeded at a single one of these companies," said Victor Schachter, an employment lawyer with Palo Alto, Calif.-based Fenwick & West, which represents many high-tech companies. "A union can't change economic trends that are happening in a business."

The economic downturn has made labor efforts, already tough in the entrepreneurial tech environment, even harder. Traditional unions are retrenching to focus on helping the workers they already represent and have had to lower their expectations for breaking into tech as a new market.

"There are many claims being made on union resources," said law professor William Gould, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. "Unions have to spend their dues to service the employees they already represent. At the same time, they're trying to organize in other industries that have a better potential for yield."

What few victories the labor movement has recorded have been small and low-profile. Many unions, for example, have found better luck supporting informal associations that negotiate with tech companies.

Tech world immune to organized labor?
The failure of unions to crack the tech industry, in good times and bad, is somewhat odd considering that New Economy workers deal with many issues that unions fight against: erratic work schedules, benefits and pay equity. While highly paid and highly skilled tech workers may not be union-minded, organizers had hoped for a better response from lower-paid workers such as truck drivers and stock clerks.

see Special Report: Labor pains But tech companies successfully rebuffed most unionizing efforts by offering stock options as incentives for employees to work long hours and make other sacrifices in the name of the company. They argued that unions would inhibit flexibility, a necessary trait for a competitive high-tech company to succeed--and to have its stock soar.

In addition, tech workers were notoriously migratory during the boom, often packing up for a new employer every year or two in search of better options and pay.

Now, many stock options are worthless, but the long hours continue. So the unions should find easy pickings among tech workers, right? Not with job openings shrinking and unemployment lines growing.

More than 100,000 tech workers were laid off in 2001, and thousands more faced forced vacations or pay cuts.

As a result, many union organizers are concentrating on more fertile industries.

"The biggest question is whether the organization that wants to do it has the inclination and the resources," Teamsters Vice President Chuck Mack said. "How responsive are people? Can you, in fact, build a base to be successful? We've not done that" in the high-tech sector, he said.

Today, Mack said, the Teamsters are more focused on pursuing traditional audiences, as in their current effort to organize overnight truck drivers.

The unions also have to overcome an image problem in Silicon Valley if they are to become successful, according to Gould, who teaches at Stanford University.

"This is a problem that has plagued unions for the last 30 years in which they've tried to come to the Silicon Valley," Gould said. "They lack the experience and knowledge of this industry."

While they have recorded few big wins, unions have managed to score some smaller victories, particularly with employers that are Old Economy-New Economy crossovers, such as telecommunications company Verizon Communications and aerospace company Lockheed Martin. In addition, e-tailers often employ the services of unionized delivery and warehouse workers.

When it comes to breaking into purely New Economy companies like Amazon, traditional unions like the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO also have found some success in supporting smaller quasi-union organizations.

Progress toward a new, hybrid model
These associations can help negotiate contracts and offer worker support, but they do not have the power to collectively bargain for workers. Some of these hybrid efforts are organized by industry, which means they may be better suited to serve the transient tech population because they provide steady benefits and ongoing education even as the worker moves from job to job.

Alliance@IBM, an affiliate of CWA, is one of the most successful of these groups. Open to all 130,000 IBM employees in the United States and run independently of IBM, the group has about 4,000 members, and management's ear.

It successfully pressured IBM to make changes in the pension plan that affected some 65,000 workers. It is currently lobbying management to commit to rehiring laid-off workers as jobs open up, and it is encouraging people older than 40 to file age-discrimination complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"These are the new, fledgling models of employee organization. It's decentralized and networked," said Amy Dean, chief executive of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council in San Jose, Calif. "So this isn't a debate about whether employees are organizing or not. It's a question of them not being able to fulfill the full potential of organizing, such as establishing wages, hours and working conditions."

Another high-profile organization is the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, a high-tech labor group with 250 dues-paying members in Washington state that is also affiliated with the CWA.

Created by two former Microsoft temporary employees upset about the controversial practice of long-term use of temporary workers, WashTech is now part employee advocate and part trade association. It reaches across issues at various tech companies, from helping organize Barclay's union campaign at Amazon to successfully negotiating a contract between 43 shuttle bus drivers at Microsoft and the drivers' employer, Laidlaw.

And the traditional unions are using their traditional audience to break into parts of the tech world. The United Food and Commercial Workers union, for example, has been meeting with Safeway managers about organizing workers in the company's new online delivery business, organizers say.

UFCW already has a contract with Safeway and is likely to extend it to cover employees with packing and delivery jobs at the online unit, said UFCW organizer Bob Re.

The UFCW has been trying for over a year to organize workers in Amazon's eight U.S.-based distribution centers, but it has focused on educating workers about unions and what such organizations can do for workers.

Amazon spokesman Bill Curry had no comment on the union efforts, saying the company's stance has not changed.

WashTech co-founder Marcus Courtney said the fact that workers were trying to organize--even if they failed when they were laid off or the company closed--shows that they are open to unions.

"It's very early to say that organizing and unionizing in this industry is dead," Courtney said.