The radicalization of Mike Emmons
- 02 September, 2003 22:00
Mike Emmons' home office doesn't look like much: just a desk, some shelves littered with books, a couple of computers, a server, a printer and some other gadgets. But for the past 11 months, it's been headquarters for a ferocious one-man campaign against the practice of offshore outsourcing and supplanting American workers with foreigners on temporary work visas. Emmons lost his programming job last winter when his entire IT department at Siemens Information Communication Networks (ICN) was outsourced to an Indian company. Until last year, the University of Florida graduate rarely voted; now he plans to run for Congress ("I'll probably lose," he concedes). During the past year, Emmons has made himself an expert on labour policy. He has harassed corporate executives, gotten himself on television and is one of the main reasons that legislation reforming the L-1 visa was introduced in the US House of Representatives in May.
"They took my job; they took my livelihood," he says, with a crisp cadence that barely hides his anger. "You don't do something like this to someone and expect them to turn a blind eye."
The radicalization of Mike Emmons provides a personal window on the growing backlash against the offshoring of IT jobs and importing of nonimmigrant temporary workers on H-1B or L-1 visas. This story could even be considered a wake-up call: CIOs beware; you might have a Mike Emmons on your staff.
At age 41, Emmons is the type of programmer that companies used to dream about. Tireless and dedicated, he taught himself Cobol, 4GL, database design and Web programming as the times demanded. In January 1997 he started working as a contractor for Siemens Business Communication Systems in California, earning US$90,000 a year. His office merged with the Lake Mary, Fla., division in 2000, forming Siemens ICN, in June, and Emmons and his family moved back to the state where he had grown up.
On April 19, 2002, Siemens ICN told employees it was going to outsource its IT department and that they would all be laid off once the transition was complete. While the news was bad, none of the 20 employees was devastated; the layoffs wouldn't take place for a few months, and they figured that some of them would stick around as consultants. But in the last week of June, Siemens announced it had selected Tata Consulting Services, and by July 1 the office was filled with consultants--all from India--who would eventually take the Siemens employees' jobs. The American workers were offered severance packages as high as $13,000 if they would train the Indians to do their jobs. (Siemens spokesman Bud Grebey says that only a handful of the company's 70,000 US employees have been affected. "Our customers are big telecommunications companies, and telecom has been hit hard," he says. "We need to do things to make the business more efficient.")
Despite feeling betrayed, Emmons and the other laid-off workers did what was asked of them. The money was too good to pass up, especially when the alternative was immediate unemployment. Meanwhile, training the replacement workers proved challenging. According to Emmons and other ex-Siemens employees, some of the Tata consultants had only two weeks of preparation before they arrived. This raised a red flag for Pat Fluno, a now ex-senior systems analyst who started inquiring about the visa status of the replacement workers.
On Aug. 15, Fluno sent a letter to her US representative, John Mica, asking him to investigate a situation she thought was illegal. "An L-1B visa is for a specialist knowledge worker who has in-depth knowledge of the company's products, policies and procedures," she wrote. "It is not meant for generic skill sets, such as computer programming, but for skills specific to the sponsoring company. If these people were brought over on L-1B visas, it is an attempt to avoid the strict (Department of Labor) laws regarding displacement of Americans."
Fluno showed Emmons this letter. "That's when it hit me," he says. "Something has got to be done. I said to myself, I can fight this and get caught and lose 12 weeks pay, or I can get paid for 12 weeks and never work again."
Fluno was laid off 15 days later. For Emmons, whose termination date was Dec. 20, the battle was just beginning. He called and e-mailed Mica's office almost daily and distributed fliers about the alleged visa abuse throughout his neighbourhood. In late September, he received a phone call from Mica in which the representative assured Emmons he would try to help and that he would make inquiries with the INS, now known as the Bureau of Citizen and Immigration Services. On Oct. 11, Mica sent a letter outlining the situation at Siemens to Secretary of Labour Elaine Chao. Emmons put a sign supporting Mica in his front yard and voted for him in the November election.
Then, Emmons says, nothing happened. According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., campaign finance watchdog organisation, Mica received four donations totaling $3,999 from Siemens between the time Emmons first contacted him in August and the November election. Emmons, who was still training the replacement workers at Siemens, was livid when he learned this. By the time he resigned to take another position on Nov. 24, just weeks before his termination date, he concluded that he had to fight not just the corporations that were replacing American workers but also the government.
Two days after he quit, Emmons drove to Mica's house and hand-delivered a letter to the representative's wife in which he accused Mica of sacrificing American jobs for corporate donations. He also contacted congressional aides, and when none of this produced any legislation, he went to the media. In mid-February, Orlando television Channel 6 ran a series on Florida workers who had lost their jobs to offshoring. The channel interviewed Mica and then revealed his voting record, which has consistently supported raising visa caps and loosening visa restrictions.
Gary Burns, legislative director for Mica, says the Florida congressman has done plenty for laid-off workers: In addition to bringing the Siemens case to the attention of the INS, Mica has called for a Department of Justice study on the issue and introduced legislation to prohibit bringing in offshore workers on L-1 visas.
A Guerrilla Campaign
Emmons has been equally aggressive in pursuing his former employer. While he maintains that he has nothing against either Siemens or the Indian workers who took his and his colleagues' jobs, he says, "I learned that I have to use this situation to expose what's happening to Americans." At 5:30 in the morning on Jan. 14, 2003, he began what he calls his "e-mail bombing campaign." Knowing the Siemens email administrators wouldn't be at work, he sent a message describing what had happened to him and his fellow employees to thousands of Siemens employees, including the executives in Florida and at Siemens AG's headquarters in Germany. (He had written a program to collect their email addresses from the Internet and other documents.) In the email campaign, he named Siemens' executives and accused them of selling out their company's workers. Emmons says that the 1,000 workers in the Lake Mary Siemens plant openly cheered when they read it. It is the moment in his campaign that he is most proud of.
The Florida native considers himself lucky. He got a job as a database manager at the district attorney's office. At $55,000 a year, it pays him 40 % less than he made at Siemens. (H-1B workers at Siemens ICN make as little as $28,000, according to immigration documents.) But Emmons' new job does come with health insurance, which he needs since his 7-year-old daughter, who has spina bifida, has already undergone eight operations and will likely need more. Two of Emmons' friends haven't been so lucky. One who worked at Siemens for 23 years is now doing landscaping and odd jobs. A 15-year veteran is trying to make a living as a woodworker.
Emmons calls his political campaign against offshoring a war. "They can't just give all these jobs away and expect this country to survive," he says. "What's happening now is going to haunt this country for years to come."
No Americans Need Apply
Daniel Soong got his first computer in the fifth grade, a Timex Sinclair that used an audiocassette player for a disk drive and the family's black-and-white television for a monitor. It cost about a hundred dollars at Radio Shack and wasn't good for much more than writing a few snippets of code in Basic. But that was enough to hook him. By the time he was in high school, he was taking calculus and advanced mathematics. He declared computer science as his major after his first semester at Sacramento State.
When he graduated in 1995, information technology was booming. The Internet was on its way to commercialization, and entrepreneurs were looking to capitalize on the growth potential in IT. For Soong, a job in the field was a natural next step on a journey he'd started when he was 10. "I wasn't looking to get rich or anything," he says, just searching for a steady job doing something he loved.
Now age 30, Soong doesn't even have that. He has been out of work since January 2002, when ChevronTexaco outsourced his job to India. And like millions of other Americans, he can't find work in IT. Soong doesn't see his situation improving anytime soon, and you can hear the despair in his voice. "There's no sense of hope," he says. "No hope for college graduates, no hope for people looking for a job, no hope for any of us."
It wasn't always that way. After graduating from college, Soong stayed in Sacramento for two years working as a programmer in the data warehouse group at Intel. He then left to work as a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers, based out of Boston, a job that sent him across country and all over the world. It was a dream job. In 1999 he returned to California to join a mortgage dotcom, but interest rates were high and the fledgling company never got off the ground. Soong was laid off three months after he started.
He wasn't worried, however. "My skills were in demand," says Soong, who is an expert at several database and programming languages including SAP ABAP/4, Oracle SQL, C++, HTML and Web Development Tools.
After briefly working on a contract for HP, he moved back to the East Coast for a full-time position with Accenture. But again he was laid off. "I was in a building with 500 people," says Soong. "Then they started to offshore. Nine months later we were down to 50 people."
By this time, Soong was desperate to find a stable position, and in October 2001 he seemed to have found it; he accepted a contract position with ChevronTexaco in San Ramon, Calif., to help the oil giant finish a $200 million to $300 million SAP project. He hoped that at the end of his six-month contract he could join the company full-time. But Soong soon noticed something that would not bode well for his future with the company: It had a lot of workers on H-1B and L-1 visas, and every day their ranks seemed to grow.
Meanwhile Soong and his fellow consultants weren't training ChevronTexaco employees, but visa candidates and offshore personnel. The American employees and contract workers were slowly being let go, 20 every two weeks or so. With 1,000 cubicles spread out over two floors, the changes were hard to notice. "It was subtle," says Soong.
So subtle that he was shocked when his turn came. In January, halfway through his six-month $60,000 contract, Soong was called in to an office on the fifth floor to meet with two senior managers he had never seen before. "People kept telling me I was doing an excellent job," he says. "Why would they get rid of me?" Nevertheless, they told him he wasn't performing well enough. "They tried that on me. I told them my program works great, I had trained everyone, and my full-time ChevronTexaco manager can back me up. The room was silent for a minute." Only then did one of the managers close the office door. "Then they just saidÉ well, they came up with another excuse." (Chevron Texaco declined to comment for this article.)
Soong began looking for work, but he soon realised the job market had changed. No one he knew could find a job. At one point he had a lead on a job in Texas. The company wanted to hire him, but it had signed a contract with a consultancy--Tata. Still, the company arranged an interview for Soong. "(The interviewer) hung up on me after 15 seconds," says Soong. He started making inquiries. His friends told him that Tata only interviewed Americans to be in compliance with the equal opportunity employment commission, and that no Americans were ever hired.
After three months of joblessness, he was forced to move back into his parents' home. Browsing the Internet, Soong found a community of people in similar circumstances. He spent months talking online to his fellow unemployed programmers. But he never joined an organisation or even attended a meeting until May, after he heard about Kevin Flanagan, a programmer at Bank of America's Danville, Calif., office--and a former Chevron employee--who shot himself after he was forced to train his Indian replacement worker.
"It could have been any one of us," Soong says. "His desperation came from the fact that he felt alone. That is the desperation we all feel."
Shortly after Flanagan's death, Soong went to his first meeting of an unemployed tech workers group called No More H-1B--a bold step for someone who never thought of himself as particularly political. He now attends meetings at least every other week with Programmers Guild and Communications Workers of America. For the past two months he has been handing out fliers in downtown San Francisco, writing letters to his elected officials and trying to get proposals into the state legislature that would make it illegal for state contracts to go to companies that offshore work.
Every day Soong makes the rounds of employment agencies. When he is lucky he gets a temporary job answering phones or testing video games, nothing that ever pays more than $10 an hour. Most days he doesn't work. "I've been able to pay my bills at the end of the month," he said in early June, "although this month may be a little tough." Two weeks later, Soong canceled his cell phone and email accounts.
He still gets occasional interviews, but he feels that they are just for show and that the companies will send the job overseas. Soong recently decided to send his rŽsumŽ to India, to see if he could get work there.
"It would be really interesting to work in Bangalore," he says. "But I was told, 'Daniel, it is against the law for you to work here. You can come here on vacation, but you can't work here.' "