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Industry Standard

NYC programmers may form labor union

March 22, 1999
Web posted at: 7:30 p.m. EST (0030 GMT)

by Bernhard Warner

(IDG) -- Programmers have rights, too, don't they? In New York City, they're not going to take it anymore. In fact, there's talk of forming a union to do something about workplace issues.

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A labor union for Internet workers may seem counterintuitive because industry jobs are plentiful and wages are well above the norm. Nonetheless, some major union officials, including the 630,000-member Communications Workers of America in Washington, D.C., are eyeing computer engineers, programmers and Web designers as potential recruits to their ranks.

In Gotham, an Internet executive and a vocal labor advocate are pushing for a Net-only kind of union. A union would likely work to secure health-care coverage and retirement benefits for freelancers, as well as lobby for collective-bargaining rights to mediate contract disputes. It could also create a Web-based pipeline to alert workers about job openings.

A union's main purpose would be to protect freelancers when the job market turns sour, explains Immanuel Ness, a vocal labor advocate and political science professor at Brooklyn College, who is pushing the notion with Dick Jones, VP of business development for a New York-based Web design shop, Progressive Internet Alternatives.

Many New Yorkers are doubtful that such a movement would be appealing to the city's full-time Web workers. The freelance community, which by some estimates represents 20 percent of New York's 189,000 new-media employees, may be a different story.

In January, 250 people attended a weekend bull session set up by Ness and Jones. Dubbed "The Labor Online Conference," the gathering was focused in part on gauging interest for, and promoting the formation of, a labor union for the city's tech workers.

"There is not at this point a major groundswell of support in Silicon Alley for organizing a union. I say that somewhat regretfully," observes Jones, who has become more or less synonymous with the new-media union "movement" in New York since his essay outlining its benefits was published in January on the @NY site. Jones and Ness admit their platform is incomplete.

Critics of the union idea maintain it would add layers of costs to an already expensive place to do business. And worse, some fear it could mean the difference between a New York firm winning and losing business.

"I happen to think that what [Jones] is proposing is dangerous," says Eric Goldberg, president and founder of New York-based Crossover Technologies. "We've seen unions strangle this city before. Why would you want to do that again?"

Goldberg, a member of the New York New Media Association, acknowledges that many of the Alley's rookie Web workers are toiling for long hours at relatively low wages. And, unlike many West Coast firms, most New York companies don't offer their junior employees equity stakes in the business, creating wider wage disparities between management and the average line worker.

"There is a real problem there," Goldberg admits. "But I think an old-line union would draw real money away from real problems."

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