Layoffs reignite call for unions

Computer World –

As more Web-related firms dismiss technology workers each week, the time may finally be ripe for IT unions, according to labor officials.

Getting Organized

Attempts to organize technology workers:

Company: Etown.com Union: Northern California Media Workers Guild

Companies: Microsoft, Amazon.com Union: Washington Alliance of Technology Workers

Nationwide, job cuts at Internet firms rose almost 20% from November to December, to a total of 19,248 for both months, according to Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Just last week, Cable News Network, an Atlanta-based unit of the newly formed AOL Time Warner Inc., laid off 400 employees, one-third of whom were online staffers.

"The sooner people band together for mutual relief, the better they are facing things like layoffs," said Erin Poh, a representative of the Northern California Media Workers Guild, which is working to organize a union at San Francisco-based online consumer-electronics firm Etown.com.

But critics argued that in spite of the economic downturn, unions aren't well-suited to the needs of technology workers and will only exacerbate their problems.

Lew Brown, Etown's president and chief operating officer, contends that unlike unions, which have a "political agenda," he cares about his employees' jobs and well-being.

Poh said unions can't prevent layoffs, nor is it their intention to put anyone out of business. But as dot-coms feel the financial squeeze, labor is the first to go, Poh said.

Workers with a collective bargaining agreement, however, can choose to have salaries cut or reduce the workweek as an alternative to layoffs.

That might have helped workers at Stamford, Conn.-based research company Walker Digital. On Jan. 11, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed a federal lawsuit against the firm, claiming that it failed to provide adequate notice before laying off 106 workers in November.

Other Organizing Efforts

The Etown.com situation is only one of several efforts under way to organize high-tech workers. In October, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech) began a drive to organize customer service representatives at Amazon.com Inc.'s headquarters.

"If dot-com workers are concerned about job security, advancement and training, now is the time to talk about this with co-workers," said WashTech organizer Gretchen Wilson. "Once you are [laid off], you are powerless." Since the Amazon.com union drive became public, customer service representatives haven't been required to work mandatory overtime, even during the holiday season, she said.

But Amazon.com spokeswoman Patty Smith denied that the union drive has had any impact on Amazon's day-to-dayy operations. She said there was no mandatory overtime during the holidays because the company had enough incentive programs to entice volunteers.

"Amazon needs to be flexible in order to innovate on behalf of customers and employees," she added. "[Unions] are not terribly flexible when it comes to making changes for the workforce or customer base."

WashTech also led the industry's most visible effort to organize technology workers in its lawsuit against Microsoft Corp. Last month, Microsoft announced that it would pay $97 million to 8,000 temporary workers and their attorneys, who charged that the software vendor should have offered the temps the same stock option benefits as regular employees.

But despite layoffs and the economic downturn, most IT workers would gain little from unions, since they receive good pay and benefits, critics argue.

Michael Berch, who was laid off in October as IT director at Internet Pictures Corp. in Oak Ridge, Tenn., said that until recently, most technology workers didn't fear layoffs because they figured they could easily find another job.

But in the past month, Berch said, as the pace of job cuts has quickened, there has been an "undercurrent of discontent among a lot of junior people [who were] enticed to Silicon Valley by dot-coms."

However, Berch added, the atmosphere at many dot-coms is so informal and collegial that workers who joined a union could alienate co-workers and managers with whom they are friends.

"I think it's very risky" to unionize high-tech workers, agreed Challenger Gray CEO John Challenger. "These companies can ill afford a union movement that pushes up their employment costs."

Union officials acknowledge that organizing high-tech workers meets some resistance.

"There is a tremendous amount of fear about speaking about workplace issues" among high-tech workers, said WashTech's Wilson. But, she added, "There are few places for people in high-tech to turn to."

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