Pit Schultz on Sun, 17 Jan 1999 04:27:39 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> austin bunn: no collar workers

[from misc.activism.progressive]

Village Voice  January 13 - 19, 1999
No-Collar Workers
by austin bunn             
Is There Room for
Unions in the New Media World?

You know them by their e-mail. It comes from places like hotmail.com or
yahoo.com- free accounts that they can check from anywhere- or bargain
providers like Panix. Even when they've got a steady gig, they won't
use a corporate address because they won't be there long enough to
care. At Microsoft, they're called "Adashes" because their
@microsoft.com accounts are all marked with an "a-" before their name
("a" for temp "agency").  "It's so that when you send mail to anybody
in the company, they know you're a contractor," says Mike Blain, an
ex-Microsoft adasher. "Then they don't take you seriously."

Free agents like these account for nearly half the total employment in
New York's tech industry, according to a study by Coopers & Lybrand
from 1997, the most recent available. (They make up 10 percent of the
total U.S.  workforce.) They're highly educated, handsomely
compensated, and invariably, they've got complaints like Blain. No
pension, no health care, no vacation. Late payment for work.  70-hour
weeks without overtime.  But mention the idea of a "union" and it
sounds as foreign and outmoded as Fortran.

"Freelancers in new media have a lot of power because there is such
demand," says local Web designer Laurel Janensch. "If you're not happy
working where you're working, you can leave and get another job." But
that "power" might just be the power to escape. Many make out fine, but
the sacrifice may be harder to identify, even to them. "One team of
guys at [an Alley design shop] had worked four days straight on an
account without showering," says one designer, recalling an
all-too-common scenario. "What's worse is that they were digging it."

Can you organize a workforce that doesn't want to be organized?  Should
you? The 31-year-old Blain, who cofounded one of the nation's first
tech-worker unions, WashTech (washtech.org), thinks so and he's not
alone.  This weekend, activists at Brooklyn College's Graduate Center
for Worker Education in Manhattan will hold a two-day conference,
"Labor Online:  Building Worker Power Through Interactive
Technologies," to draw together the barely unionized tech sector and
traditional labor like the United Auto Workers. The ambition is a
strategic upgrade- an effort to get the old guard hip to the wonders of
e-mail and the Net.  (One seminar is titled "Using Databases To Win
Organizing.") But another dilemma hangs over the proceedings: does new
media need a new kind of union?

Blain will be the first to find out. Formed last spring, WashTech is
angling to mobilize Microsoft's 6000 Seattle "permatemps"- about 35
percent of the company's 19,000 total workers in the Seattle area- who
are employeed through temp agencies and work for years like
full-timers, but never become official employees. The permatemps hover
in limbo without benefits, or permission to play on the campus's
athletic fields, while the agencies take stiff cuts from their
paychecks. "In my three years working for the most profitable company
on earth, I had one paid vacation," says Blain. A group of contract
employees recently won a 1992 class-action lawsuit against Microsoft
for years of missing benefits and stock proceeds- a good sign for
WashTech. But organizing efforts are aimed not just at Microsoft, but
at the temp agencies that parasite off them. "Depending on the kind of
work you do [like programming, testing, writing], it's dictated which
agency you have to use, so that the agencies don't have to compete
against each other," says Blain. "They're the real monopoly."

WashTech mobilizes through a 900-person e-mail newsletter, and others
have recognized the impact of using the Web for publicity and breaking
"media blockades," says Steve Zeltzer, an activist and video producer
for labor causes. Last winter, workers in the Korean general strike
used a centralized Web site to dispatch news of their progress when
they were denied media coverage.  Activists organized protest actions
in front of Korean consulates in 80 countries, Zeltzer says. "They
couldn't have done it without the Net."

Now, tech companies have started to fight back on the new turf. In
March 1997, ex-Intel engineer Ken Hamidi launched the Former and
Current Employees of Intel site (faceintel.com), a compendium of worker
complaints against the chip manufacturer. Some of the documents are
highly incendiary, including one that indicts Intel managers'
"harrassment and badgering techniques" as the cause for the alleged
suicide of an engineer in 1997. To notify the employees about the site,
Hamidi sent e-mail to over 30,000 Intel e-mail addresses. By the
seventh campaign, Intel filed a lawsuit against him for trespassing on
their "computer networks." Hamidi argues that "the medium is public and
Intel can't claim any privacy- if it wasn't public, there wouldn't have
been addresses to get my mail." Hamidi, who is bankrupt, has other
unfinished business with the company. He won a worker's compensation
lawsuit in 1996 against Intel and says he is still fighting for the

Here in New York, the stakes are smaller but the situation is more
complex. It's impossible to see the need for unions when pay rates inch
higher. One design executive pegs standard hourly wage for designers at
$75 to $100, programmers up to $150, and database designers $200. (The
rate for this piece works out to about $30 an hour.) And inside the
Alley's entrepreneurial ethos, worker/management relationships (if the
distinction exists at all) often flip, and coders remake themselves
into employers. "The Web has leveled the playing field," says Leslie
Harpold, who employs freelancers in her Web design company, Fearless
Media. With unions, small business will suffer, she says. "It'll be the
large companies that will dominate."

Saddled with such a negative rep, a new media union might have to shuck
the idea of "solidarity," says Immanuel Ness, one of the Labor Online
organizers and a political science professor at Brooklyn College.
"Unions need to take into consideration . . .  individual excellence
and initiative." Ness offers up the concept of a "virtual hiring hall"
for when the bubble economy collapses, where the unionized unemployed
could look for jobs and employers could find qualified hires. A good
idea, except it's a little late. The Web is already filled with job
lists, like the WWWAC list, @NY, HotJobs.com. Another possible model is
Working Today's "portable health insurance fund" (workingtoday.org) for
the irregularly employed, which will debut next March.

As it stands, bonhomie and drinks is as close as most Alley workers
will get to political brotherhood. When design shop Avalanche was
acquired last year by competitor Razorfish (razorfish.com), the 25
Avalanche employees would get together before the merger to draft a
document to protect their benefits and status in the company. "It felt
good to get together," says Matt Hanlon, who was at the meetings along
with Janensch. "I think there was a letter [written] at the end."
Hanlon, now a freelancer, recalls the "great atmosphere" both at
Avalanche and at those meetings.  But now, a year after after the
merger, only seven folks from the meetings are still at Razorfish.  
The rest exercised their right to scatter to the wind.

The Labor Online conference (laboronline.org) will be held at 99 Hudson
Street. The entrance fee is $99, but "no one will be turned away at the
door." Call 212-966-4014 for more info. 

[more info on Intel Corporation vs. Ken Hamidi at FACE Intel: 

posted from the rtmark terminal at atonal festival berlin 
http://www.atonal.de audio stream: http://orang.orang.org ]

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