Guild targets Microsoft p.31

By: Mark Fitzgerald The future of the Newspaper Guild may well be symbolized by a session held on Jan. 28 at the King County Labor Temple in Seattle.
Unlike the many union meetings held in the storied building so central to Washington state's turbulent labor history, nobody sang "Solidarity Forever," there were no passionate denunciations of the bosses, and no strike votes were taken. Instead, there was a group of mostly young people hunched over their PCs, studying Internet coding.
"Imagine that ? we're teaching mid-level JavaScript at the King County Labor Temple," says Marcus Courtney, co-founder of the Washington Alliance of Technical Workers, or WashTech.
Since August, WashTech has had yet another name: Newspaper Guild/Com-munications Workers of America Local 37083. And though it is the Newspaper Guild's newest local, it is undertaking the union's most audacious mission: organizing the thousands of "temporary" software workers at Seattle's most famous high-tech companies, such as, Boeing ? and Microsoft.
"People say, 'Are you crazy? The Justice Department can't rein them in, and the Newspaper Guild is going to build an organization at Microsoft?'" says CWA vice president Larry Cohen.
"Yes, we are going to organize a unit at Microsoft," Cohen continues. "We didn't write off Gannett because it's big. We didn't write off Knight Ridder because it's big. And obviously, we're not going to write off a big organization like Microsoft."
But what chance can a union have at Microsoft, where stock options have turned engineers, programmers, and even secretaries into millionaires? How can a union organize the highly educated, highly independent-minded Gen-X'ers who abhor hierarchies, distrust old institutions, and have careers that allow them to write their own tickets? "That's the great myth, that everybody is willing to work huge hours because they are ready to cash in their stock options," says WashTech's Courtney. "The reality is that most employees are getting middle-class pay. They have no job security. There are no stock options. There is no real paid vacation. And they don't get the Microsoft health insurance plan."
In fact, at any given time as many as 6,000 of the 19,000 people designing, writing, and debugging Microsoft products do not actually work for the $15 billion software giant at all. Though they may report to work at the campus in suburban Redmond for months or longer, they are considered the cyberspace version of Kelly Girls, working out of dozens of high-tech, temp employment agencies, such as Volt, S&T Online, and, yes, Kelly Temporary Services. Microsoft refers to them officially as "contingent staff."
These software nomads have picked up other names at Microsoft through the years. Sometimes they are called "a-dashes," a reference to the agency name incorporated into their e-mail addresses. Sometimes they are called "the Orange Badge People" to distinguish them from full-time Microsoft employees who wear blue-colored company IDs. But whether they work for Microsoft or some other high-tech outfit in Washington state's Silicon Forest, these computer-age gypsies are probably best known as "permatemps."
Aside from the stock options, permatemps say they are reminded almost daily in some small and grating ways that they are different from the Microsoft employees on their project team. Permatemps cannot play on the company's softball teams. They cannot attend the company Christmas party or the elaborate "ship parties" that celebrate the launching of new products.
"It's a caste society," Courtney says flatly.
Microsoft counters that they are the victims of myths, too. The exclusion from sports teams or parties, a spokesman says, is simply an insurance matter. Contingent staffers work an average of 9 months on the job ? not years, he adds. And 30% of Microsoft's new full-time hires have spent at least some time as temporary workers.
Until he became a full-time Newspaper Guild organizer at WashTech, Courtney was a permatemp at Microsoft for four years and worked as a test engineer debugging such products as Windows '98, Network '98, and Office 2000. The longer he worked as a permatemp, he says, the "crazier" the system seemed.
But he didn't do anything about it until last winter when Washington state's Department of Labor and Industry changed the way high-tech permatemps get paid. Under the new rule, software employees paid more than $27.63 an hour were no longer eligible for time-and-a-half, overtime pay.
"There was a huge outcry from software professionals," Courtney says. "There was a spontaneous e-mail campaign against it. And when it went through, that was really the signal that many of us needed. We realized that when it came to employee rights, by being unorganized, by not having an organized voice, we had no power."
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?(copyright: Editor & Publisher January 30, 1999) [Caption]


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