Big Blue's Union Blues

Buyouts and the threat of layoffs have workers spooked

Big Blue has long been the paragon of a nonunion company. For decades, it kept employees happy with above-average wages and a no-layoffs tradition. So not many IBMers wanted a union, even during the downsizings that sliced the company in half by the early 1990s.

Now, though, IBM faces its most serious unionization effort ever--even though it has expanded its 110,000-strong U.S. workforce this year. The move comes not from an outside union but from angry employees. Since early October, hundreds of manufacturing and other workers at a 5,500-person Endicott (N.Y.) circuit-board plant have held weekly meetings with the International Union of Electrical workers. Now, they're canvassing other IBM facilities, too.

The organizing effort was triggered by an employee buyout announcement made in mid-September. Because IBM is shrinking in some areas and growing elsewhere, it wanted to cast off workers with unneeded skills and hire others, says an IBM spokesman. When it announced the plan, IBM said that layoffs were possible if not enough people signed up.

That warning angered many employees, says Lee Conrad, a leader of the union drive and a 23-year veteran assembly worker at Endicott. They understood that IBM had to lay people off when the company's market share plunged in the early 1990s, he says. But employment now is growing for the first time in a decade. "We thought that there should be no need for more layoffs," says Conrad.

RESISTANCE. IBM says most employees don't want a union and has vigorously resisted the drive. The company has sent letters to employees warning that they may have to "accept less" if they join a union, and managers have called in workers for meetings to discuss the drive.

In the end, the unionization effort may go nowhere. But organizers say it already has been something of a success: In mid-November, IBM announced that there would be no layoffs at Endicott--a move union advocates attribute to their campaign.

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