The seeds of a high-tech union sprout in Washington

To labor organizers, three groups of workers have long posed a challenge to unionize: temps, high-tech workers, and highly trained career mavericks.

But over the past 18 months, a group of Seattle-based computer workers have mustered 185 members and compiled an e-mail list of 1,400 workers spanning the high-tech hub of Puget Sound.

After years in which the high-tech industry seemed nearly immune to labor activism, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech) recently organized a 16-member bargaining unit seeking better benefits from the four temporary-help agencies that arrange staffing for Microsoft Corp.

An affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, WashTech has focused primarily on Microsoft and its 6,000 temps. Yet many WashTech members work at the region's scores of other information age companies.

WashTech claims credit for prompting Microsoft to recently require temp agencies to upgrade their benefits to a higher standard.

Microsoft declines to comment about WashTech, saying its members are employees of staffing agencies. But it says the upgrading of benefits would probably have occurred anyway.

"We're paying attention to all the issues involving the industry and [WashTech] is not the only reason we would make a change," says Microsoft spokesman Dan Leach.

WashTech has successfully organized workers by using the same technology that it says makes some workers vulnerable to poor compensation and shaky jobs. New software and the Internet allow companies to more closely gauge market demand and finely calibrate their staffs. The firms have cut their core of permanent employees and hired temps at a lower cost when the market demands more employees.

Now, though, WashTech uses much of the same technology in order to rally and serve temps across many workplaces and job types. It recruits and mobilizes members by e-mail. And from its Web site it offers a list of job openings and classes in the latest software.

"There is no way we would have gotten as far as we have had it not been for the Web and Internet," says Marcus Courtney, a co-founder of WashTech and a former Microsoft temp.

But the "Silicon Forest" still poses several obstacles for WashTech. Temps are difficult to organize because by definition their location and job satisfaction change with each job, say labor experts.

Also, high-tech employees show no more eagerness than other kinds of workers to risk their jobs and challenge their bosses, the experts say.

"There's a lot of anxiety and fear among contract workers," says Ed Campodinico, a designer and temporary employee at Microsoft for three years. Microsoft temps are apparently skittish even though WashTech says the company has not retaliated against any of its members.

WashTech must also overcome the challenges that thwart other labor organizations: A shortage of highly skilled workers gives leverage to many nonunion workers; entrepreneurial self-starters tend to shrug off the notion of worker solidarity; and young workers who grew up during the decline of Big Labor have limited understanding of unions.

Finally, Microsoft temps especially do not always recognize that a high-tech job paying three times the minimum wage might still be unfair.

"None of us are day laborers slaving away at minimum wage and working in terrible conditions where you would feel like you have lots of cause" for organizing, says Connie Schachtel, a Microsoft temp and WashTech member. "Until the discrepancies dawn on them," she says, "people tend to feel that if they complain they're whiners."

Nevertheless, WashTech members employed as temps at Microsoft rattle off a megabyte of complaints. Pay and benefits often lag behind those of permanent Microsoft employees doing the same work. The gap persists even if the temps stay at Microsoft for years as "permatemps."

The benefit packages offered by the several staffing agencies vary but are generally inferior to that offered by Microsoft, according to interviews with Microsoft temps. Mr. Leach, a Microsoft spokesman, says benefits from the staffing agencies are competitive and have improved over the past several months.

The temps also complain they have little chance of advancing into long-term hires. But Leach says 30 percent of temp jobs lead to a permanent position. He notes, though, that a temp employee might work at more than one job before joining as a long-term hire.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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