Temp Slave Revolt
By David Moberg
After a few weeks as a product designer at Microsoft, 26-year-old Ed Campodonico wondered out loud to his office mate why there wasn't a union for temporary employees like them. "Dude," his partner replied edgily, "you can't talk about that."
But Campodonico, who grew up in a union family, did talk about it. So have a small but growing number of other skilled computer workers who hold temporary jobs in this global software center and do not have the rights and benefits of regular employees, even after years of working virtually full-time for the same company. Their innovative union, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, is confronting two of the most important trends in the American workplace - the information technology boom and the rising importance of contingent workers, a catch-all phrase for part-time, temporary, contract, lease or other nonstandard employees.
WashTech was born in 1997 after a few Microsoft "permatemps" were outraged that the Washington Software Alliance, an industry lobbying group, had persuaded the state labor department to deny overtime pay protection to a large swath of well-paid software engineers. Now affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, WashTech organizers are seeking new ways of giving a voice to workers who do not fit into existing labor laws and organizations.
"We're trying to create a new model of unionism," says Marcus Courtney, co-founder of WashTech. "In this industry, collective bargaining is not an attainable goal right now. That's not going to preclude us from organizing and building power for workers on the job, at the legislative level and in the community. If we play by the rules, we'll never win. So we're going to build a new kind of worker organization that works for this industry and new-economy jobs."
In May, WashTech joined with about 40 other worker advocacy organizations, ranging from the AFL-CIO to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, to form the National Alliance For Fair Employment (NAFFE). Although the day laborers, software designers and adjunct professors represented by groups in NAFFE might seem to have little in common, all contingent workers - about 30 percent of the work force - lack many of the rights or legal protections of standard employees. Contingent workers also typically have less pay, benefits and security than comparable standard workers who often work alongside them; while they are twice as likely as regular workers to receive poverty-level wages, even skilled and well-paid contingent workers are short-changed. Regular workers lose out as well, since the contingent work force can be used to drive down their pay and working conditions.
Since temp and some other contingent work has increased even during a boom time, when more workers normally would be added to full-time payrolls, its future growth seems likely. Seventy percent of businesses surveyed by the American Management Association in 1999 reported having replaced some permanent workers with temps, and two-thirds said they planned to increase some form of contingent staffing in the next five years. Much of the recent growth of contingent work reflects an attempt by the most-powerful corporations to shift as many risks as possible to their employees and dependent businesses and to avoid responsibilities for workers and the potential claims they might make by organizing or demanding their legal rights. Indeed, it is often unclear who (if anyone) is legally considered their employer - which is precisely what businesses want.
While WashTech is still small - it has 260 dues-paying members, working at more than 70 Seattle-area companies, and 1,700 subscribers to its electronic newsletter - it frequently exposes abusive practices of companies like Microsoft and Amazon.com as well as the temporary employment agencies. Its criticisms have already led to improved employment agency benefit packages for temps. It also has launched surprisingly effective, if not yet victorious, legislative battles for investigation and regulation of the temporary employment industry, such as a proposal that agencies must reveal the fee they collect from each temp worker's contract.
Microsoft insists that the temps it controls and selects are actually employed by the agencies, which often do little more than cut paychecks and skim off a large fee. It's a typical gambit in the world of contingent work, where the definition of employee varies from law to law and case to case. However, Microsoft has been judged to be an employer of temps in several important instances. Earlier this year, under pressure from WashTech, the state ordered Microsoft to let temp workers see their personnel files, which the company would not open because it claimed it was not their employer. (WashTech is still fighting to make Microsoft comply.)
Meanwhile, in a complicated lawsuit initiated in 1992, federal courts have decided that Microsoft was indeed the common-law employer of certain longtime independent contractors and permatemps paid through the agencies. As a result, the workers should have been entitled to participate in the company's discount stock purchase plan open to all employees. The court has not yet ruled on the workers' claims for 401 (k) retirement benefits, health insurance or vacation pay. Nor has the court decided on the damages Microsoft owes an estimated group of at least 10,000 workers. WashTech is not formally involved in the lawsuits, but some of its members are plaintiffs. Pressure from the lawsuits and WashTech have led Microsoft - which has even bigger headaches with the court-mandated breakup for antitrust violations - to change its policies for the roughly 6,000 temp workers who make up about one-third of its Seattle-area work force. Microsoft has begun to reduce its number of temps but also has required that temps work no more than a year before being separated from the company for 100 days - an effort to protect itself from future lawsuits rather than address the basic issues of fairness. Until a judge rebuked the company, Microsoft even tried to force temp workers to sign contracts that would have precluded sharing in the benefits of the lawsuit settlement.
Unlike many temp workers who are immersed in poverty, most software engineers and editors, even the temps, typically earn $60,000 a year or more - and they often love their work. "We had to overcome this idea that labor unions were only for people who hated their jobs," Courtney says.
But temps are often upset about being treated as second-class workers and the parasitic role of the employment agencies. Often workers find their own jobs, then are forced to work through a specific agency that provides them nothing. Besides seeking health insurance and training to stay on top of a fast-changing industry, many software workers want some control over the long hours of overtime that have become the industry standard.
Still, the idea of collective action is alien to most young high-tech workers, especially temps who are often quite isolated from each other and rapidly churn through jobs. "We start not even at square one, but at negative three," explains Mike Blain, co-founder and president of WashTech. "The negative baggage is especially heavy in information technology, with its maverick, libertarian culture, which believes you succeed by being smart, working hard, keeping trained and moving around - and if you don't succeed, it's your fault."
WashTech treasurer Barbara Kempf finds less outright opposition than unwillingness to join and pay dues without a clear, immediate payback. But despite the frustrating, slow pace of WashTech membership growth, Courtney sees economic security as a "molten lava issue below the surface," especially if the soaring fortunes of recent years go sour. "A lot of people are basing their futures on the jackpot economy," he says.
Indeed, earlier this year interest in WashTech picked up at Amazon.com, when the company had its first layoffs and where compensation packages have been scaled down from the start-up days. Discontent even rose among full-time Microsoft workers when its stock price dropped sharply this spring.
The building trades unions may provide the best model for the information technology sector. High-tech unions could flourish by organizing the supply of trained workers to the industry and helping workers with their career development. With advanced software skills in great demand, workers so far have counted on continued training and job mobility more than a voice on the job, but few companies provide the training that workers need, especially for temps. As a result, WashTech's training programs have been popular. Although it has relied heavily on local colleges, it also may tap into new training partnerships of CWA with companies like Cisco Systems. "That's becoming a core central mission of our organization," Blain says. "Offering training has been the most effective recruitment tool."
Unlike the building trades, WashTech can't legally negotiate the kind of contracts that establish the terms of employment, but it does hope to set minimum terms for everyone in the high-tech industry - whether permanent, temp or contract workers - and to regulate employment agencies. It also plans to establish a worker-owned, cooperative employment agency that could serve workers better than the for-profit agencies do.
Tim Costello, director of the Campaign on Contingent Work, a Boston-based NAFFE affiliate, thinks that temporary work - especially through employment agencies - will be one of the most promising targets for the new national movement. NAFFE is likely to push for both new state-level regulation of agencies and for a voluntary code of conduct, which could be implemented through campaigns against the major corporate employers of temps. Although national labor law revisions could greatly help organizing of contingent workers, employers are likely to fight fiercely any restrictions on one of their favorite cost-cutting strategies.
Though WashTech often seems like a gnat alongside the Microsoft elephant, Blain says, its impact could be amplified if it were part of a national effort. NAFFE is a step in the right direction, but it would help if there were more groups like WashTech. "Workers like the idea of WashTech," Courtney adds. "But if you shout, 'Is anybody out there?' there's no echo."
There are plenty of people out there - nearly a third of the work force - but they haven't yet heard the call for contingent workers of the world to unite.
David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times.