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From Offshoring to Organizing: One Tech Worker's Tale
April 08, 2004

Mercer Island, Washington—On Friday, March 21, 2003, Myra Bronstein and 17 other software Quality Assurance Engineers at WatchMark, Inc., now WatchMark-Comnitel, in Bellevue, Washington, were called into a meeting by their bosses. The news, delivered in a speech and repeated in an accompanying letter, was grim: they were losing their jobs. The problem wasn’t that they were incompetent, just too “expensive.”  From now on, their work would be done more cheaply by workers based in India. There was one final insult.

Former tech worker Myra Bronstein and WashTech President Marcus Courtney testify before the Washington House Commerce and Labor Committee.
Photo by D. David Beckman

“We were told that our replacements would be flying in over the weekend, and we would be expected to start training them on Monday,” recalls Myra, 40, who holds a degree in electronics engineering technology and had worked in the information technology (IT) industry for 14 years. “The letter we were handed said that if we quit, we wouldn’t be eligible for benefits," benefits like severance pay and unemployment insurance—what one needs to survive when laid off. "We were told verbally and explicitly, 'we're paying you for the next four weeks to transition your knowledge, and we expect your head to be in the game every minute.'"

For one month, Bronstein trained not one, but two people.  All but one of her colleagues did the same. For some, the training lasted five or six weeks. They coped with gallows humor. “We referred to ourselves as ‘the Castaways,’” says Myra, “or ‘Dead Man Working.’” In the end, the company laid off 60 employees, 18 of which had their jobs sent to India.

A year later, Myra, who with bonuses, once earned $80,000, plus benefits and stock options, remains unemployed. Her unemployment benefits have run out. She pays the rent by auctioning goods on eBay, but can no longer afford health insurance.  She’s not alone. By some estimates, the Puget Sound region of Washington lost nearly 10,000 technology jobs between February 2001 and April 2002, and many of them went, as Myra’s did, overseas.  Indeed, “offshoring,” has been sweeping through white collar industry as it once did through the manufacturing sector. Gartner, Inc., a high-tech forecasting firm estimates that 10 percent of computer service and software jobs will be moved overseas by the end of 2004. A recent UC-Berkeley report projected that some 14 million jobs are ultimately at risk of being outsourced.  To employees like Myra, proud of their hard work, education and skill, being considered “so disposable” has been a profound blow. 

But Myra found what for her was a new source of support: a union. Shortly after she lost her job, a friend put her on the email list of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, an affiliate of the Communication Workers of America union. After she shared the story of training her own replacement with WashTech, she heard from WashTech's president Marcus Courtney.

Marcus was no stranger to problems in the IT industry. He’d been a Microsoft permatemp – a full-time worker whose “temporary” status denied him standard benefits offered to regular Microsoft employees like health insurance, sick leave and stock options.  Marcus had served as a permatemp at another IT firm for two years prior to joining Microsoft.  In both instances, he had to contract through temp agencies, even though he located the jobs, interviewed for the positions, and was offered the jobs without any assistance from the temp firms.  Often temp workers contribute years of service and contribute concretely to the success of companies.  Yet these “temp” workers—in spite of working fulltime hours in long-term, ongoing positions—rarely receive vacation, sick leave, performance reviews, or access to grievance procedures, much less job security.

In 1998, after enduring two years of substandard status at Microsoft, Marcus and a co-worker and fellow permatemp at Microsoft founded WashTech.  The union was initially formed as an advocate for permatemps, working to negotiate the same benefits for these workers as fulltime employees receive.  WashTech is now a union of and for all technology professionals, addressing issues that affect IT workers, regardless of whether they are covered by a union contract and pay dues.

WashTech represents a new kind of union, reaching out to a growing workforce of non-traditional employees. Contingent, temporary, on-call and contract workers, as well as independent contractors, make up a growing percentage of the workforce, and reaching these men and women, scattered at different workplaces across the country, requires innovative strategies.  Eligibility for membership in WashTech is open to anyone working in the high-tech industry, including editors and writers, software programmers and testers, and graphic designers.  The union provides steeply discounted training in computer and networking skills to members. And it shrewdly uses public relations and political lobbying campaigns to bring together workers, bring out their grievances, and bring about change. As a result, even Microsoft has begun implementing some new, improved contract worker policies.

A recent survey commissioned by WashTech found that 93 percent of IT workers were worried about offshoring.  Through 2003, the union took on this issue, even holding demonstrations outside the headquarters of Microsoft, which had plans to offshore more jobs.  More significantly, Marcus worked with Washington State legislators to draft and promote two bills to hit the problem dead on.  Dues-paying membership doubled in the last year, and the number of subscribers to WashTech’s email newsletter skyrocketed, from 2,000 to 17,000. The “sea change in attitudes of white collar professional workers in the labor movement” that Marcus predicted may be at hand.  Myra Bronstein is one of those white-collar professionals who have caught on.  Through her membership and activism with WashTech, Myra went from what she describes as “screaming into the abyss” to testifying before the Washington State Legislature about the indignity of training her replacement. Myra just spent eight days touring the country as a delegate on the AFL-CIO “Show Us the Jobs” bus tour of 18 cities.  Stopping in some of the towns and cities hardest hit by job loss, Myra and 50 other delegates shared their personal stories of how America’s jobs crisis has affected them, their families and their communities.  “It’s important to let elected officials and media know that what happened to me is happening to thousands,” she says emphatically. “I don’t want sympathy, I want results.”

“Before this, I was flailing. WashTech gave me a format for activism and a sense of direction and community. A union can allow for collective bargaining, can get the media's attention, and can formulate policies to propose to elected officials.  And they can hold these officials’ feet to their fire based on how they vote. This is the only recourse left to us. Yesterday it was the textile and manufacturing workers, today it’s IT, tomorrow it’s your job. These problems are too big for one person to solve. They may not be too big for tens of thousands of us who are organized together.”