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