Programmers Of The World Unite

An effort by Microsoft temps to unionize faces big odds

In mid-November, Marcus Courtney camped out at a Seattle bus stop, handing out leaflets to riders headed for Microsoft Corp.'s sprawling headquarters in the suburb of Redmond. His quixotic mission: to persuade the 6,000 programmers and technical writers who work for the software giant as "temps" to join a labor union.

Courtney is a founder of a group called the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech). It was formed last spring by a few dozen disgruntled Microsoft temps angry at what they see as their second-class treatment (table, page 94). In August, WashTech affiliated with the 600,000-member Communications Workers of America (CWA). WashTech says that 900 software workers, mostly at Microsoft but also at Boeing,, and other Seattle high-tech companies, have signed up for its E-mail newsletter. (There's no print version.) The group began accepting dues-paying members in October, but doesn't expect many joiners until it gets an online registration system up and running.

WashTech would appear to be tilting at windmills. Microsoft may be preoccupied with its antitrust suit right now, but the $15 billion colossus has plenty of resources to battle a union drive. And even many WashTech members say they like their jobs, if not their treatment. Still, if the effort succeeds, it will mark a watershed for the largely union-free computer industry and for the U.S. labor movement. For more than a decade, union leaders have been trying with little luck to gain a foothold not just among computer workers but also among high-tech and white-collar professionals in general. Triumph at Microsoft would encourage other unions in their recruitment efforts, say labor leaders.

WashTech is also cutting new ground among temps and independent contractors, who now constitute 10% of the U.S. workforce. Unions have made little headway with these workers, professional or blue-collar, largely because they hop from company to company. But big companies like Microsoft have provided unions an opening by keeping their temps on long term, often for years. Unionization efforts could gain from the murky legal status of these "permatemps," which is beginning to cause headaches for employers and the temp industry alike. Says Courtney, who in August quit Microsoft after nearly two years as a temporary software test engineer to organize for WashTech: "We're employed indefinitely through temp agencies and have no economic rights like other workers."

Indeed, Microsoft's hiring policies helped to spur its temp workers to organize. The company employs more than 6,000 people through temporary agencies and as independent contractors. Roughly one-third of temps have been on the job for a year or more, the company says. Yet these employees are excluded from the generous benefits and fat stock options that Microsoft's 19,000 "regular" U.S. workers get. Microsoft is now battling a class action by temps who argue that they are legal employees of the company and entitled to benefits. Sharon Decker, Microsoft's director of contingent staffing, says many temps like the flexibility their jobs allow.

OVERTIME TIFF. The immediate spark for WashTech came last fall, when a software industry group that includes Microsoft supported a move by the state Labor & Industries Dept. to exempt some software professionals from state overtime laws. Some 750 outraged software workers E-mailed protests to the agency, but it changed the policy anyway. Courtney and other Microsoft workers then got the 750 names from the agency's public E-mail list and contacted them to form WashTech.

WashTech doesn't intend to be a conventional union. It won't hold a federally supervised unionization election, in part because permatemps' status is unclear under labor law. Down the road, WashTech may try to force Microsoft to recognize it as a union without a formal election--a tactic the CWA has used with mobile-phone and other workers. But for now, WashTech hopes to build a membership group whose sheer numbers

will force Microsoft to pay attention.

WashTech's initial goal is to give high-tech workers a voice for their concerns. At Microsoft, that means getting better treatment for permatemps. They say they do the same jobs as regular employees and work side by side with them in the same work groups. Yet Microsoft will only employthem if they agree to become independent contractors or sign up with a temp agency--and forgo benefits, say these temps. Microsoft's Decker says the company has 3,000 regular jobs open at any given time and "anyone who wants to work at Microsoft can come and apply."

Still, some permatemps say they see the agency relationship as a sham that allows Microsoft to deprive them of benefits. One temp, who declined to be named, says she found a job as a technical editor at Microsoft in 1995 and has been there full-time ever since. She Was told to sign up with S&T Onsite, a unit of Seattle-based Sakson & Taylor Inc. She pays about half the cost of the health and dental benefits S&T offers, much more than what regular Microsoft workers pay. And she doesn't get Microsoft's paid vacation, sick days, and holidays, or its stock options. S&T strategy manager Eric Sonett agrees that S&T's benefits are inferior to Microsoft's. Decker says Microsoft is urging agencies to look at their benefit plans to make sure they're competitive.

Other permatemps maintain that the agencies are simply third parties that do little for them. So says Miriam Harline, who has been a Microsoft technical editor on and off for seven years. She got her first job through an agency and had personal relations there, so she didn't mind being on its payroll. But when Harline found a job in a different Microsoft unit in 1996, her manager said she had to switch to S&T even though it didn't find her the job. Sonett concedes that a majority of the 500 temps it has at Microsoft found their own jobs. Decker says Microsoft asks managers to refer candidates to agencies.

S&T then dragged its feet, Harline claims, when her new Microsoft manager agreed she should get a raise. Harline got so fed up that she formed a company with her husband, also at Microsoft, and both became independent contractors, still in the same jobs. Then she joined WashTech. "I resent this whole agency shell game," says Harline. "I don't know anyone there, they don't speak for me, and if I want a raise, they don't even want to help." Sonett, however, says that "it would be senseless for us to do anything to harm our relations" with employees.

In July, Microsoft told the agencies that agency managers would henceforth be expected to do performance reviews for their employees and use them to determine pay hikes. "But my Microsoft manager has day-to-day control over me. I never talk to anyone from the agency, and they have no clue what I do," says the editor. "The agency will just rubber-stamp what my manager says." Sonett agrees that S&T relies heavily on "client feedback" to do reviews. Decker says Microsoft is encouraging agencies to communicate more with temps.

The odds against WashTech making headway at Microsoft seem high. But if it manages to get the software giant to turn more permatemps into regular employees, it could mean millions more for the company in added benefits--and a prominent foothold for unions in the high-tech economy.

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