New-economy job classifications range from temp to perma-temp, independent contractor to freelance, full-time exempt to nonexempt, and salaried employee to wage earner. While it seems unlikely that one union could represent this enormous collection of workers, many people find workplace issues difficult to navigate alone.
Enter the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, better known as WashTech. The “Voice for the Digital Workforce,” WashTech is sponsored by the Communication Workers of America, an international trade union affiliated with the AFL-CIO. WashTech was created in 1998 after the state of Washington ruled that contract and temporary computer workers making more than $27.63 an hour must be considered exempt and, therefore, ineligible for overtime pay.
The ruling, issued in June 1997, pleased lobbyists for the Washington Software Alliance, whose members include Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM. The ruling is in line with a similar statute in the Fair Labor Standards Act, but state rulings often have more impact than federal decisions regarding workplace issues. The Washington Software Alliance and other backers set out to ensure that no state-level bill would countermand the federal statute.
“This particular ruling, which came from a state agency without any legislative due process, clearly demonstrated a lack of education regarding the realities faced by tech employees, particularly contract workers,” says Gretchen Wilson, an organizer with WashTech. “We find it legally questionable for the state to regulate overtime for just technology workers.”
WashTech is not a union in the traditional sense — partially because it doesn’t spearhead collective bargaining agreements with area employers … yet. With roughly 250 dues-paying members already, WashTech creates dialogues and shares information about issues facing high-tech workers. It informs members about training classes, and focuses its legislative agenda on a few issues essential to tech workers.
“We’re here to answer questions and create conversations about basic work-environment-related issues such as contracts, discrimination, benefits, compensation, and overtime,” Wilson says. “Currently, we’re also helping employees at companies such as Microsoft and Amazon.com gain access to their employee personnel files.”
In New York City’s Silicon Alley, freelance computer programmers, testers, and Web designers are threatening to join forces and introduce a WashTech-like organization. And in Silicon Valley, the AFL-CIO is attempting to organize workers in silicon-fabrication plants, where low pay and dangerous conditions often threaten employees’ health and safety.
But does it make sense to form worker unions at a time when every employee is made to feel like an owner of the company? Though stock options and vesting schedules may induce a sense of security, some think that theoretical ownership cannot protect employees against the whims of management and the marketplace.
“People in this industry are brainwashed into believing that they’re entrepreneurs,” said William Lassard, cofounder of the online Webzine NetSlaves: Horror Stories of Working the Web. “They take stock options and believe they’re owners of the company on the same continuum as Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. They believe they’re part of some new libertarian capitalist vanguard, and that simply isn’t the case.”
V. An Internet Union: Does Collective Bargaining Make Sense When “We’re All Owners Here?”