In Toronto, Guild organizes 'Bottom of the food chain': Carriers p. 32

By: Mark Fitzgerald Even as the Newspaper Guild tries to organize software programmers at Microsoft, its unit at The Toronto Star is bringing into the union a nontraditional group at the blue-collar end of the industry: carriers.
"Newspaper carriers are without a doubt the most exploited workers in the Canadian newspaper industry. They work in the dead of night in all kinds of weather for very little compensation," says Gail Lem, national vice president of media for the Guild's Canadian parent union, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) Union of Canada.
This month, carriers at the Star voted 787 to 250 to become part of the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild, SONG/CEP Local 87-M. If the vote is upheld by Ontario's Labor Board ? and it is under an aggressive challenge by the newspaper ? it would add 2,000 members to the 3,000 Star employees already represented by the Guild.
But the road to the representation vote victory was not easy for the Guild, and it is by no means assured that all those people will be coming into the union any time soon.
"I wouldn't be surprised if this goes well into the year," says Jagoda Pike, the Star's vice president of operations/human resources.
Not so long ago, Newspaper Guild organizers in the United States envied their counterparts in Canada, where federal and provincial labor laws put more obstacles in front of employers than unions.
"It's not that way anymore," says Jeffrey Bodiucky, chairman of the Guild unit at the Star. "It used to be really easy, but it has really changed in the last three or four years, in Ontario, anyway."
The Star maintains that the carriers are not employees at all, but independent contractors. It also maintains that if there should have been an election at all, it should have included another 400 carriers who deliver the TMC (total market coverage) product.
Pike says the paper is also challenging many of the votes cast during the election which was held at the paper's 19 distribution centers.
"There were about 300 people who showed up to vote for whom we have no record of a relationship with us," she says. The Labor Board begins proceedings on the challenges Feb. 1.
nalism major who was a Microsoft technical editor permatemp, Courtney obtained the list of e-mail addresses of people who protested the overtime rule. By contacting those discontented permatemps, the two soon had a corps of volunteers who became WashTech. Now, 1,000 people around the Puget Bay Sound receive the group's electronic newsletter. (
Perhaps ironically, the overtime exemption that sparked WashTech's growth is a nonissue for Microsoft's contingent staff, says spokesman Dan Leach.
"Microsoft has never chosen to implement that limitation and is not interested in implementing that rule," Leach says. In fact, he says, contingent workers across the board earn bigger base salaries than full-time employees doing the same job. The numbers vary depending on the job, he says, but can boost pay for temporary employees to more than 40% higher.
If WashTech tapped into permatemp discontent, it also dovetailed with the goal of the Newspaper Guild and its parent, Communications Workers of America (CWA), to organize cyberspace workers.
"The people we're talking about are writers. Either they are writing code, or they are editing text," says CWA vice president Larry Cohen. "But they are all writers."
They are also notoriously independent.
"You hear that a lot: 'Everybody here is too independent to be organized,'" WashTech's Courtney says. "I think that's exactly why they want to get organized. If you want to preserve your autonomy, you're not able to do that as an individual in a huge economy. If you want to preserve your rights and protect your dignity, you can only do that if you organize."
It is a message that is attracting people who don't necessarily consider themselves pro-union, such as new WashTech member elke Peterson, a writer for Microsoft's Seattle Sidewalk Web site who does not capitalize her first name.
Peterson's experience is typical of permatemps. She was told she was going to be hired, and then was sent off to a temp agency for her formal hiring. Permatemps say they don't have a choice of temp agencies. So when Peterson was transferred to another agency ? with, she says, fewer benefits ? it was the "last straw."
That typical case, however, also underscores the difficulty of traditional union organizing. More than 50 temp agencies serve Microsoft and other high-tech firms, often providing workers through their own subcontractors. A single permatemp may have five or six "employers," making it almost impossible to identify a bargaining unit, let alone negotiate a contract.
"Federal labor laws really have not kept up with the changes in the workplace and the work force," says Thomas F. Gibbons, a labor attorney and director of the Center for Continuing and Professional Education at DePaul University.
Instead, WashTech hopes that by amassing big numbers of members it can change the culture at high-tech firms. There are short-terms goals, too: eliminating restrictions that keep temps bound to their agencies, providing vacation and sick pay in employment contracts, and improving health insurance. WashTech is also hoping to attract members by offering training, such as the JavaScript classes at the Labor Temple.
Microsoft, for one, has not felt any effect from WashTech's organizing, spokesman Leach says, but it doesn't oppose the union's efforts.
"Free speech, free association, and individual choice are things we fight for in our own business," he says. Union organizing, Leach adds, "is an issue between contingent staff and their employers, which are the agencies. We don't have a position on that."
Phone messages to temp agencies including Kelly Temporary Services, MacTemps, S&T Online, and Volt were not returned.
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