Labor's Beef with Bush

In the brave new world of outsourcing, you get to train your own replacement worker

A few hours before Zell Miller and Dick Cheney stoked the GOP faithful at the Garden last Wednesday with red-meat attacks on the Democratic ticket, a pretty sizable group of voters who hadn't been heard from all week gathered nearby to protest Republican policies. Somehow, their gripes never made it to the evening news.

Maybe that was because the labor unions' rally—estimated by organizers at 50,000 strong—came off with nary an arrest or a shocking soundbite. That is, unless you count Sopranos star James Gandolfini. "It took George Bush four days to get here after 9-11," he told the rally. "I wouldn't have waited four days, that's all I got to say."

The quip fell with a thud, as a crowd that included iron workers, painters, laborers, electricians, teachers, carpenters, hotel workers, janitors, teamsters, and city workers, and which filled Eighth Avenue from 31st Street to 22nd Street, appeared to wish Gandolfini back to the Bada Bing. But that may have been because, as rally convener Brian McLaughlin, the assemblyman-union leader from Queens who heads the city's Central Labor Council, said, the event wasn't about 9-11 or Iraq. "It's about the war right here at home."

After George W. Bush took office, some labor unions batted their eyes at the guy who, like it or not, was going to inhabit the Oval Office for the next four years. Leaders of the carpenters and Teamsters unions invited Dubya to their Labor Day picnics, and backed him on what they said would be job-creating efforts like letting the oil industry into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the bloom was long off the rose by this summer, when Bush pushed through rules that could end overtime compensation for some 6 million workers. As a result, organized labor, with a few isolated exceptions like the city's contract-hungry United Firefighters Association, has turned full throttle to the effort to elect John Kerry.

In his speech to the rally, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney listed just some of the reasons why labor sees this election as a do-or-die struggle: 14 million Americans looking for a job who can't find one, 45 million without health insurance, median family incomes falling for the third straight year. "Our good manufacturing jobs are being shipped overseas, and now they're being followed by white-collar jobs. The few new jobs being created pay less, and they don't provide health benefits or pensions," he told the crowd.

Beyond that, unions trying to organize new members say the wheels at the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Department of Labor are grinding to a halt. "This election is a turning point for all of organized labor," said Gary LaBarbera, the newly elected president of the 25,000-member Teamsters Joint Council 16, as he listened to the speeches. "I think members realize that Bush is just anti-labor."

But the newest and most troubling phenomenon haunting American working people, the loss of white-collar jobs raised by Sweeney, is taking place at companies where unions never even got their foot in the door. Some 500,000 IT (information technology) positions have already been shipped overseas to low-wage countries like India. Such job exports are expected to become a flood in the years ahead. Last February, the head of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisors spoke approvingly of such job transfers, saying, "Outsourcing is just a new way of doing international trade."

Myra Bronstein, a petite woman in a red-and-white-print blouse who spoke briefly to the crowd after being introduced by Sweeney, said her software firm in Washington State took a unique approach last year to its outsourcing. "We went to work on a Friday and were told we were being laid off." Their work would be handled in India, managers said, and if they wanted to collect severance pay, they would have to train their replacements.

"Our manager brought the new workers to a meeting with us when they arrived," Bronstein told the Voice. "He said, 'I want to introduce my old staff to my new staff.' "

Bronstein, 41, has two degrees, a bachelor's in biology and another in electrical engineering. She grew up in Red Bank, New Jersey, and was recruited by AT&T right out of college. Her specialty is designing and testing software for wireless-systems providers. She spent 10 years with AT&T, and when she was offered a job at the preeminent company in her field, WatchMark Corporation in Bellevue, Washington, near Seattle, she jumped at it. "That's the center for this kind of work. Microsoft is there, a lot of the other big firms."

Part of Bronstein's job was to develop test cases—ways to probe the software to make sure it responded correctly. To do so, she made sure she kept abreast of developments and innovations in the field. "I was always at Barnes & Noble, checking out the new books," she said. For her effort, Bronstein's pay, including an annual bonus, came to about $80,000 a year. All in all, she figured she had a pretty fair deal.

But in March 2003, word came down that Bronstein and 16 other IT workers would be laid off. Their severance, they were informed, was dependent on how well they trained their replacements.

The new workers were flown into Seattle and assembled at WatchMark's offices. Bronstein was introduced to two people in their thirties, a man and a woman, and told to impart to them all she knew. "They were nice people, and excellent in their training and knowledge," she said. Bronstein said she could never, out of simple courtesy, bring herself to ask if they knew exactly what was going on. "It was an impossibly awkward situation," she said. "I didn't see any reason to put them on the spot about it."

From what she could learn, the new software testers would not be direct employees of WatchMark, but work as subcontractors employed by a separate firm. Their pay, she was told, was about $5,000 a year—one-sixteenth of Bronstein's.

Bronstein's unemployment benefits ran out earlier this year, and her severance is long gone. She has cashed in her 401(k), and she can't afford health insurance.

"This is happening all over in the IT world. It's epidemic; people are being replaced en masse," Bronstein said. "A lot of people don't talk about it, because a condition of their severance is to sign these very stringent non-disparagement clauses. But in addition to everything else they've done to me, I'm not going to be muzzled."

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