US unions take aim at high-tech workers

Organised labour so far hasn't played a significant role in the New Economy, but in the US unions are fighting to expand their influence into emerging sectors.

Organised labour so far hasn't played a significant role in the New Economy, but unions are fighting to expand their influence into emerging sectors.

The strike by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers against Verizon Communications is the most recent high-profile indication - following a widely publicised action last year to organise temporary workers at Microsoft - that such union-related activities may be on the upswing in the high-tech realm.

Union membership in the US has declined in recent years, from 30% penetration in the private sector in the mid-1950s to less than 10% today, according to Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts.

Chaison attributes the decline to a failure to confront globalisation in business and to an outdated labour model that focuses on strikes and collective bargaining. Unions need to redefine themselves in order to survive among a mobile workforce with different attitudes, he says.

For example, they need to find a way to appeal to the mind-set that information technology workers typically have. Web designers and systems administrators are libertarians at heart, according to Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a Virginia-based trade association for the US IT industry.

"They don't want guaranteed job protection," he says. "They want flexibility to leave for more money ... and to make out like a bandit when the company goes public.

"They don't want to be paid based on seniority; they want to be paid more than the person sitting at the next desk if they're putting in more hours."

And in today's hot economy and tight job market, it seems that they're getting what they ask for.

"They have more clout, freedom and perks," says an analyst at Giga Information Group in Connecticut Kazin Isfahani. "There isn't a need for a union."

Not so, says CWA spokesman Steve Early.

"The wonderful jobs in the New Economy are lacking several ingredients," he says. High-tech workers need to have a say in their working conditions, grievance procedures and ways to negotiate with management in rapidly changing environments, he says.

But an analyst at AutoPacific in California Jim Hossack, says he doubts unions will make much headway in the high-tech industry due to the entrenched differences in the operations of traditional and high-tech industries.

"If demand for a product goes down, high-tech companies just stop making it," says Hossack.

"But union contracts [with auto manufacturers] can demand 95% of workers' take-home pay even if demand goes down."

According to AFL-CIOÿspokeswoman LaneÿWindham,ÿthe Verizon strike is part of a general effort on the part of unions to adapt to the New Economy.

"Just as there are lots of startup companies, there are lots of startup unions," she says.

These unions often takeÿnontraditional forms.ÿForÿexample, AFL-CIO-affiliated Working Partnership is a kind of non-profit tempÿagencyÿformed byÿSiliconÿValley's high-tech workers.

If the Verizon union members succeed in unionising the company's broadband and wireless divisions, it could inspire workers in other companies, according to Daniel Cornfield, chairman of sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Old Economy unions such as the United Auto Workers (UAW) are moving into nontraditional union sectors: last year, the 3000-member Graphics Artists Guild joined up.

The union also represents some 48,000 state employees and service, technical and graduate student employees at more than 20 colleges and universities, as well as the 5000-member National Writers Union.

Analysts say UAW now has its sights set on high-tech workers within its automotive stronghold.

"The automakers are moving away from just selling metal and want to get incremental revenue from technology-based products, like telematics [in-vehicle communications]," says an automotive analyst at Gartner Group in Connecticut Thilo Koslowski.

"The unions recognise this, and they want membership in high-tech."

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