No-Collar Workers

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 ex­Microsoft 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."

E-organizing: Workers in last year's Korean general strike used the Net to mobilize support.
AP/ Wide World
E-organizing: Workers in last year's Korean general strike used the Net to mobilize support.

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, ex­Intel 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 payment.

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.

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