IT Workers Latest Victims of "Global Economy"

D. David Beckman now works in the electronics department of a Fred Meyer department store in the Seattle area, where he makes less than 25% of the $40 to $45 an hour he earned as a tech writer with Microsoft.

A wave of offshore outsourcing (or "offshoring"), the importation of foreign workers, and the increasing use of a government visa program have come together to make thousands of tech workers like Beckman the latest victims of globalization.

As major tech companies begin to move jobs abroad, ever-larger numbers of American information technology (IT) workers, who once saw themselves as safe from the ravages of globalization, are feeling the pain.

The one silver lining may be a rise in interest in the nonmajority unions of tech workers affiliated with the Communications Workers: the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech) and Alliance@IBM.

Beckman has written about losing his job on, a web site run by WashTech. WashTech began organizing in 1998 at major Washington state tech employers like Microsoft, but now is gaining a presence in other spots around the country. Today, organizing against offshoring is a major priority for the group, which also has the long-term goal of securing collective bargaining agreements.


WashTech was formed just months after Washington issued a new labor regulation which exempted hourly IT workers who make over $27.63 an hour from entitlement to overtime pay. This rule change affected many employees at Microsoft and elsewhere in the industry, where the use of long-term temporary workers-"permatemps"-is common.

In 1999, workers at IBM who were angry about the company's decision to change traditional pensions to so-called "cash balance" pensions formed the Alliance.

Currently, WashTech has only 350 dues-paying members throughout the IT industry and represents only seven workers in two collective bargaining agreements. However, the union reaches about 16,000 workers through its email updates list, a number that has exploded from about 2,000 since the beginning of its anti-offshoring campaign in January.

The Alliance counts about 5,000 IBM employees as either dues-paying members or subscribers. (Subscribers do not pay dues or vote, but do receive email alerts and pledge to give active support to the Alliance's organizing drive and other issue-centered campaigns.)



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Like Washtech, the Alliance tries to contact each and every new email subscriber, both to find out what issues they are concerned about and to get new members more actively involved (beyond pointing and clicking) in building the organizations.

Mike Blain, the elected editor-in-chief for WashTech's websites, says the union began with the task of organizing "white collar professionals who tended to have a libertarian outlook--belief in the free market, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. That was more or less the attitude of the majority of IT workers a few years ago. Whenever unionization would come up on discussion sites¼the postings would be pretty hostile."

A few long years later, Blain says, things have changed: "We get emails every single day from people saying, 'You know, I never thought I'd say this, but we need to organize,'" Blain says.


Though the fledgling IT unions do have the eventual goal of gaining collective bargaining agreements, they are realistic that the task of organizing an almost completely non-union industry will not happen overnight. As such, they see the internal issues-based organizing they are doing now as very important.

"The work that we've been doing for the past seven or eight months," WashTech organizer Marcus Courtney says about the union's anti-offshoring campaign, "shows that unions cannot strictly rely on a collective bargaining strategy in order to grow their membership. We could be looking back at the work we're doing today, with the offshoring campaign, and say 'we are helping to lead a sea change in the attitudes of white collar professional workers in the labor movement.'"

Courtney likens the task confronting IT unions to the UAW's undertaking of organizing a completely non-union auto industry in the 1920s and 1930s.

But the question that haunts organizing in IT is whether the rank and file are willing to confront the realities imposed by offshoring and expanding visa programs for foreign professionals.

Part of the reason for this is denial. "They're just putting their heads in the sand, a lot of them," Alliance@IBM President Linda Guyer says of her co-workers at IBM. "Some people are very afraid. They're lining up other careers, they're going to school at night. Other people are just like, 'Well, I don't think it's going to be me, it's going to be somebody else.'"

Peter Ian Asen was recently a Labor Notes intern, and is now a managing editor of the College Hill Independent in Providence, R.I.