The way Marcus Courtney sees it, a significantly large and ever-increasing number of technology workers in Washington state would be a whole lot better off if they talked openly about their problems, stood up for one another, and, essentially, became one giant and cooperative family. The family Marcus has in mind would be a brotherhood and sisterhood of union workers, the virtual offspring of the Communication Workers of America, especially those members of the Seattle high-tech scene who currently serve companies like Microsoft and Amazon.com as temporary employees. According to Courtney, these functional worker-bees, the industrial beehive of software design, test, documentation, technical support and manufacturing personnel, deserve better treatment than they’re now getting from their often dysfunctional management siblings. What’s more alarming, Marcus sees this growing digital disparity as the emergence of a caste system in Seattle tech-dom. The situation has created a level of workers who are both disempowered and disenfranchised, far from the stock-optioned, six-figured elite most people think of when they imagine the sporty high-tech startup firm in the I-5 or I-90 fast lane. And he should know. For four years he worked as a high-tech permatemp where he grappled with these issues first-hand.
No one would dispute that the Internet age has dramatically changed the way we work, or that today people are working in jobs that were inconceivable a few short years ago. But lest we forget, the industrial revolution produced the same magnitude of disruption, and not without a plethora of change in the areas of labor law and worker compensation. And there are new threats looming according to Courtney. Here’s our virtual union rally in the Seattle24x7 alley…
Seattle24x7: Marcus, is it WashTech’s position that temporary tech workers should be able to collectively bargain for better pay and working conditions in the Seattle technocracy?
Courtney: We would argue that right now in this industry that agency contract workers have a right to bargain collectively with their employer. It’s obviously very difficult, especially for agency workers, because in this industry the question becomes who’s the employer? There’s a lot of opposition amongst employers to allow techies to freely exercise these rights. Some of the groundbreaking work that WashTech did early on was put together collective bargaining campaigns at a couple of venues. We had a campaign at Sidewalk.com, which tried to gain collective bargaining rights for their contract employees. We also had a group of employees at Taxsaver that were trying to do collective bargaining. Both these campaigns were permatemps trying to bargain with management. Microsoft ultimately sold off Sidewalk as well as Taxsaver so those campaigns never got to the stage of a union election.
Seattle24x7: A hot button has been the temporary employment agencies and their role in the high-tech employment process?
Courtney: The big issue is who is the employer? Companies are doing whatever they can to have someone else assume that responsibility. Either they only try to hire 1099 contractors where the individual is considered the employer, or they’ll hire contract agencies. It presents serious obstacles.
Seattle24x7: Some would claim it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to be employed at Microsoft in certain positions without going through a placement agency?
Courtney: Right, and there are huge questions around the relationships that these contract agencies have with Microsoft such as what do they get paid for rendering their services when people go to work at the company. In most cases, the agencies don’t do anything to find these people work. The people find their own work. But then they are forced to work through a particular temporary agency. WashTech has introduced legislation down in Olympia to mandate full-disclosure of any difference between the bill rate the employee is making and what mark-up fees the agencies may be earning. We’re seeking to daylight the process.
Seattle24x7: That legislation was stopped in the state capitol. Do you hold out hope for the political resistance to change?
Courtney: I think we’re making headway [in Olympia] although we haven’t had a breakthrough.That’s really the exciting thing about WashTech and how far we’ve come in the last four years.
We were the nation’s first local union ever dedicated to organizing technology employees, trying to find innovative ways to organize workers in this industry. When we stated four years ago, at almost the height of the Internet boom, everybody said, What could a Labor Union ever offer employees in this industry? Why would they ever join? Today we have more than 250 members. We have more than a thousand people subscribe to our electronic newsletter called The WashTech News. We’ve launched an innovative training program. We put out the most cutting edge research report that detailed the wages and working conditions for technology employees from their perspective. We’ve been trying to give a realistic picture of what this industry needs so we can make good policy and give weight to the issues that are of concerns to workers.
Seattle24x7: Still the legislative obstacles are formidable?
Courtney: The real frustrating thing is to see the political establishment in Washington state ignore the issues and concerns of technology employees because they are afraid to stand up and challenge the corporate technology interests of the state. You see that down in Olympia and you see that at the national level. When workers organize unions, employers try to strike fear in the hearts of employees that if you organize a union it’s going to be worse off. They make the union the issue. It’s never about the issues that are on people’s minds.
If you talk to tech workers today, what are they talking about? They’re talking about job security. I can walk into a job at RealNetworks one day, I can walk into Adobe, and a half-hour later, I can be out on the street with no severance package or benefits. These are the true concerns. And yet, politics has basically ignored these issues.
Seattle24x7: A report published last year by the WSA (Washington Software Alliance) forecast a significant shortage of skilled workers over the next decade to fill key disciplines within the industry. And yet current unemployment levels in the sector seem to belie this notion that there are a great many jobs that are unfilled. What is Washtech’s view?
Courtney: My general feeling is that the labor shortage is greatly overplayed by employers. In certain job categories and parts of the industry there may be a scarcity of people who do certain kinds of work, but the claim that there is a huge labor shortage and they can’t find people with the right skills is because the industry has failed to invest in training and education. The industry is relying on just-in-time employees, meaning that they are looking for new employees that have the exact skills to start in on day one. If they can’t find that employee, they say we don’t have any talent.
In the report released last year, they talk about how much money they spent on training, and, by their own admission, under $2 million dollars has been spent on worker retraining. This is out of an industry that generated more than $36 billion dollars worth of revenue in the state. Only a fraction was spent on retraining workers. The fact is that employers have failed to invest in training. The expectation is that employees are going to pay for their own training, and they don’t pay for employees to be able to get new kinds of training and skills.
Seattle24x7: What is WashTech doing in the area of training?
Courtney: WashTech is trying to create opportunities for workers to find affordable, accessible training to keep their skills up to date. We’re trying to form partnerships with community colleges to expand and make sure that employees can get the training they need.
We also have our own lab in the WashTech office where we offer classes in the latest technologies taught by people who use this technology in the workplace so there is an understanding of the application of these projects. We have a full-time Workforce Development director that we hired at the beginning of this year to focus on the training program and expand it. It is a critically important issue. And there’s a real disconnect on the issue. There’s a disconnect between employers and employees on the issue of training,. What the expectations are? What kind of training you need? Then there’s another disconnect that’s going on between community colleges and the workforce and the university system about what kind of training is available and what kind of support is out there. We’re trying to find way to makes these programs and efforts much more successful.
Seattle24x7: What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect about unionization?
Courtney: I think the biggest misconception is understanding just who are the people who make up unions. WashTech is not some third party organization that is made up of people outside of this industry. The people who support WashTech are people who work in the industry. They’re your co-workers, the testers, the technical editors, the technical writers. It’s people in your industry who are exactly like you, who share a common concern about you, who want to have a different vision and who want to improve their life – that is who joins a union.
Seattle24x7: What effect is the globalization of labor going to have on Seattle as a software capitol? Do you see it as a major threat?
Courtney: I think that there is increasing global competition and globalization that has allowed companies the ability to not only move capital and revenue around the world but to also move labor around the world. It’s not just manufacturing companies that are moving offshore. There is growing evidence showing that in this industry companies are beginning to seek ways to have production done by people in India and China. It comes back again to representation. Workers have a right to know that this is going on. It’s a job security issue. It’s not just, am I going to have my job tomorrow? It’s also, is my job going to be moved to India tomorrow?
People have to speak out about these issues. We cannot let fear rule the day and think of it as being just too scary to talk about. It’s obviously scary to talk about it, but we need to have this conversation. Workers in this industry have to show the leadership. But you don’t need to do it by yourself, you do it with the community standing right behind you.
Seattle24x7: What is your greatest satisfaction as a union organizer?
Courtney: When people stand up and stand together. And they speak with one voice on the issues that they are concerned about and that they can create change.That’s what management doesn’t want workers in this industry to understand — that they can actually make changes. To me that’s the amazing thing about WashTech — every single day we hear from workers who support our goals, who support our values, and who want to stand together with other people to make this industry work for everyone.
Larry Sivitz is the Managing Editor of Seattle24x7.