Sat, Mar 31, 2001 EST
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Unions Looking to Expand Presence in
High-Tech Industry

By Katherine Pfleger   Associated Press
SEATTLE — Dave Rady, a customer service representative at Amazon.com, is the kind of worker unions want to attract to stay viable in a high-tech economy. But his views on organized labor symbolize why those efforts have largely been unsuccessful.

Rady believes union contracts are too rigid for companies like his that must react quickly in the ever-changing high-tech industry. He said he would quit if the employees at the Seattle-based online retailer unionize.

"We wouldn't have the flexibility that we need month to month, week to week, quarter to quarter," said the 30-something Rady.

That sentiment frustrates Marcus Courtney, a co-founder of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, affiliated with the powerful Communications Workers of America. So far, WashTech has attracted only 250 dues-paying members.

"Not everybody is an Internet cowboy ready to retire at the age of 35," Courtney said. "We need to build a union that can really represent technology workers, ... that can address their issues in a way that labor hasn't done."

A former temporary worker at Microsoft Corp., Courtney believes high-tech companies take advantage of employees, often using temporary workers to avoid paying benefits and cutting jobs as soon as profits dip. He believes unions would offer high-tech workers more stability.

The high-tech industry is very loosely defined, so there are few hard numbers on how many people are employed and how many belong to unions. But there is general agreement that there are at least several million workers, a tiny fraction of whom are unionized.

Tapping into that work force is very desirable for unions, which have seen their memberships steadily decline. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9 percent of private-sector workers were in unions last year, down from roughly 30 percent in the 1950s.

Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., points to a list of reasons for unions' high-tech struggles: a youthful work force that is unfamiliar with unions and, as a result, leery of signing up; employees who may not stay at a job long enough to benefit from long-term contracts; and companies that consider themselves too "white collar" to need labor organizations perceived as "blue-collar."

Then there is the economy. Many high-tech companies "are coming back down to earth" after a few get-rich-quick years, Chaison said.

"The optimism is gone. Employees feel that if they unionize, or try to get too much in bargaining ... they will drive their employer under," he said. "The labor movement has to prove its case, its relevancy."

Communications Workers of America spokeswoman Candice Johnson said the union remains optimistic that eventually high-tech workers will see the value of organizing.

"It's very much a ground-up effort," Johnson said. "Change is something that we are used to dealing with all the time. It makes sense (for CWA) to start looking at technology jobs."

Still, unions have little to show for their efforts.

After two years, WashTech has gotten only about 50 of the 400 customer service employees at Amazon.com to sign an organizing petition. The union needs at least one-third of the department to sign on before it can hold an official vote and earn recognition from the National Labor Relations Board.

Efforts to unionize workers at IBM Corp. and San Francisco's etown.com also are struggling to get off the ground, while organized labor has been unable to get even a foot in the door at Microsoft.

"Our belief is the majority of folks that are in the high-tech industry are entrepreneurial," Microsoft spokesman Dan Leach said. "Historically, that hasn't been people in unions."

Union organizers say some companies are actively discouraging their efforts. Late last year, etown, a Web site that reviews electronic products, laid off 15 of 29 customer service workers who could have joined the union, the Northern California Media Workers. The company cited changes in its direction. The union says it was an attempt to derail organization efforts and has filed a complaint with the NLRB.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a University of Virginia history professor who studies labor, believes unions will have more success at high-tech companies where traditional unions already exist. He cites Verizon Communications, the nation's largest local phone company and wireless business. After a strike last summer, the union won concessions allowing it to try to organize the wireless sector.

Chaison said unions need to make inroads at a couple of companies before trying to make a push throughout the industry.

"These (high-tech) companies are coming down to earth. Whereas before there was unlimited potential and everything was done on faith and expectations, now people are taking a much more realistic point of view," Chaison said. "Breaking into the first few is the most important."

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