Labor groups seek unions for N.Y. coders
May 21, 1999
by Thomas Hoffman
(IDG) -- Long hours. Spotty benefits. Disgruntled workers who feel exploited. Sound like a scene from a 1950s plant floor? Try New York's Silicon Alley today.
As founders of Internet start-ups cash in on the initial public offering (IPO) frenzy and become paper millionaires, many of the thousands of rank-and-file developers and graphic artists who built the foundation of that success are being left behind. Not only are they not collecting stock options, but many also lack even basic health care benefits.
Sweeping in with a shoulder to cry on are established unions like the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which are actively organizing technologists to help them get fair pay and improved working conditions.
But to date, the unionization drive has been fragmented, and it faces several obstacles. Those include the need to overhaul decades-old union models to meet the work-style needs of Internet employees, not to mention the challenge of organizing thousands of transient cybernauts.
Employers aren't exactly embracing the notion. For example, one consultancy, LFI Pyramid Consulting, was recently accused by New York's biggest municipal workers' union of firing six technical workers because they were vocal supporters of a union drive earlier this month.
Labor advocates and critics agree that Eisenhower-era labor union models, which set rigid work hours and rules for overtime pay, would have to be overhauled to meet the needs of Java and Extensible Markup Language developers. That's because those workers thrive on perks like flextime and telecommuting.
Eric Goldberg, president and founder of games developer Crossover Technologies Inc. and a board member of the New York New Media Association, said classic "New York-style" unions won't work in the Internet economy. "As long as someone is able to build an Internet start-up and monetize it in 12 to 18 months, the employee backlash won't catch up to them," he said.
Efforts to unionize information technology employees aren't restricted to New York. A group of Microsoft Corp. temporary workers who work full-time hours but don't receive full-time benefits formed a local union for the CWA in Seattle in October called the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (www.washtech.org), said Eric Geist, a director at The Newspaper Guild, a Washington-based sector of the CWA. The CWA also unionized a group of HTML developers at the online division of the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper in Colorado.
But Geist acknowledged that it's difficult to organize Web developers and other contract technologists who are transient by nature.
Another roadblock to unionization: Many freelance cybernauts are finding no shortage of work, commanding $100 per hour or more, so they haven't felt a strong urge to organize.
"I don't think there'll be a formation of [an IT] union until the bubble bursts -- [when] the Dow [Jones Industrial Average] drops, and IPOs sink," said Bill Lessard, a seven-year denizen of Silicon Alley. In December, he co-founded a Web site for disgruntled technologists called NetSlaves (www.netslaves.com).
"Your typical MIS organization is just ripe to be unionized, especially software organizations that rely on bureaucracy instead of creativity," said John Miano, chairman of The Programmers' Guild, a Summit, N.J.-based group that has mushroomed to 300 members since its inception six months ago.
NYC programmers may form labor union
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