In the Spotlight

News & Features
Go to The State of the Unions
DocumentThe State of the Unions
DocumentTrying different ways to organize
DocumentThe blue collar workers of the 21st century
DocumentWill work for health insurance
DocumentA study in contrasts
DocumentAnatomy of a strike
DocumentThe Hormel strike lives on
Respond to this story

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
The blue collar workers of the 21st century
Larger view
After losing his job as a programmer at Target Corp. in 2002, Dennis Johnson is starting a new career as a handyman and contractor. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
If you were an American information technology worker in the late '90s, everybody wanted you. But the end of the dot-com boom threw that job market into reverse. In Minnesota, the number of computer-related jobs is down 30 percent from its peak in 2000. That has some workers wondering if unions could have made a difference -- and whether they still might.

Minneapolis, Minn. — For 16 years, Dennis Johnson designed software for the Dayton's and Target department store chains. His programs improved efficiency, and sometimes made other people's jobs obsolete.

"Hundreds and hundreds over the years," Johnson says. "Hundreds and hundreds of jobs, absolutely. Yeah, it's ironic."

In 2002, Johnson found himself training two men from India who would come to replace him -- for substantially less, he believes, than his $90,000 annual salary.

For Johnson, the experience brought back a comment made by a neighbor 20 years before, when he was training for his career in information technology.

"She said, 'Oh, I see you're going to become a blue collar worker of the 21st century,' which I completely blew off," Johnson says. "I had no appreciation for how absolutely correct she was."

Larger view
Image Oxenreider: "We've got nothing to leverage"

It's not just Target that has laid off some IT workers (the company declined to comment for this story). Many skilled, high-tech workers feel like they've gone from essential to expendable. When overall employment in Minnesota fell just one percent in 2002, high-tech employment fell by 7 percent. In most cases, these "blue collar workers of the 21st century" have been without the traditional blue-collar protection of unions.

The reasons for that are both historical and psychological. IT jobs are usually salaried positions, and workers say they took pride in their white-collar status. During the '90s, when IT had a growing need and a shortage of skilled people, it made good sense to be a free agent negotiating your own salary.

Chris Oxenreider is a system administrator, laid off in 2001 from a data storage company in the Twin Cities. He says even now, getting involved with a union would never occur to most of his IT colleagues.

"They tend to be a fairly independent group of people, which does not lend itself well to unions," Oxenreider says. "It's just not in the personality set of the majority of technology workers. It's basically about the work. We're there for the computers, because it intellectually stimulates us."

Oxenreider lost his job when his company, StorageTek, turned to a contractor in Bangalore, India.

The firm Forrester Research estimates by 2005, the U.S. will lose more than 100,000 jobs a year in computer-related fields to places like India, Russia, and the Philippines. This fall the state's biggest software developer, St. Paul-based Lawson Software, announced a 5 percent layoff -- at the same time it announced it was looking for an Indian contractor.

Both StorageTek and Lawson declined to talk about offshoring high-tech work, which has become a much more sensitive topic over the past year. Bill Martorelli of Forester Research says firms can cut costs up to 30 percent by moving jobs like software design and technical support overseas.

"There is not in the world a continent or region that is not seeking to get in on the offshoring of IT activities. Eastern and central Europe, of course, is an emerging region. There are emerging pockets in southeast Asia, and also in Africa," Martorelli says.

It's good that companies are looking at ways to stay competitive. Because companies staying in business create jobs, as opposed to companies going out of business and losing jobs.
- Kate Rubin, Minnesota High Tech Association

To tech workers like Oxenreider, the offshoring trend makes the whole notion of organizing a moot point.

"If we were to unionize, we should have done it in '99, because then we had some power," he says. "We've got nothing to leverage at this point."

Oxenreider says in any case, unions have a discouraging record when it comes to keeping jobs from leaving the country.

"You look at manufacturing, you look at autoworkers, it just has not been effective in trying to stonewall," he says.

Greg Dunkel still thinks it's worth a shot.

"To protect yourself as best you can against the change, you need to unite with your fellow workers," says Dunkel.

Dunkel is a system administrator in New York who has published essays calling for tech workers to unionize. Dunkel himself is a union member, as a public employee for the City University of New York. He says workers in the private sector need a union, adapted to the new reality of high tech industries.

"In the age of the Internet and globalization, I think what programmers need is a global union, one that would organize workers in India and in the United States," says Dunkel. "If Indian workers were getting comparable wages and benefits to the United States, then the decision would be made not by playing one group off against another."

The United Auto Workers and United Electrical Workers have had a similar idea, forging close ties with unions in Mexico.

But some say international efforts would do little to stop the outflow of IT jobs. Linda Nesheim is a mainframe programmer in Plymouth, and state coordinator for a group called The Programmers Guild. She says the difference in incomes is too large to make the idea practical.

"That's an interesting thought. However, (with) the cost of living in India, a $5,000 income in India is huge," Nesheim says. And "they're not going to (pay) a $75,000 income over in India."

The Programmers Guild is a national group with about 50 active members in Minnesota. It's not a union, but more of a professional networking and lobbying group. It formed in the late '90s around the issue of H1B visas, which allow highly-skilled foreigners to work temporarily in the U.S. H1B use has declined in recent years, but the group has added offshoring to its lobbying agenda.

There are a few fledgling efforts to unionize information technology workers under the umbrella of the Communications Workers of America. In Seattle, contractors for Microsoft formed the WashTech union six years ago to fight for better working conditions and contracts. The union has spread to 90 other companies in Washington state.

And at IBM, workers organized over changes to their pension plan in 1999. The uprising became Alliance@IBM, also a CWA unit. Garrett Lanzy is a national vice president of the Alliance and works for IBM as a software designer in Rochester.

"Initially, people started looking at (pension) numbers and thinking, 'This doesn't look like a good thing.' A couple people started a discussion group on the Internet, and word of it spread like wildfire and started employee activism, which was kind of unusual at IBM up to that point," Lanzy says.

Lanzy says the group helped spur U.S. Senate hearings on the pension change, and older employees won the right to stay in the old plan. Alliance@IBM claims only a tiny portion of IBM's 150,000 employees. Of nearly 6,000 workers in Minnesota, just 30 are dues-paying members.

Lanzy says the group is far from having the number of members it would need to negotiate a contract or go on strike.

"Our strategy at this point is more one of getting out, getting information to the press, so people in the communities where IBM does business can find out what's happening, and see if we can get some pressure from outside to affect what the company does," he says.

Lanzy says the union has publicized layoffs IBM hoped to keep under wraps. Members have spoken up at shareholders' meetings. And they recently published the transcript of an internal conference call, in which managers discussed moving jobs to India and China.

IBM declined to comment on the Alliance, or the topic of IT offshoring. Other Minnesota companies with offshore technical workers in India that declined comment for this story include Best Buy and UnitedHealth.

Kate Rubin, president of the Minnesota High Technology Association, couldn't comment on the topic of tech unions -- after all, she says, they are simply not an important factor in the industry. But she cautions against the dire predictions that offshore labor will destroy the high tech job base.

"It's good that companies are looking at ways to stay competitive. Because companies staying in business create jobs, as opposed to companies going out of business and losing jobs," Rubin says.

Rubin points to job gains across a range of tech fields this fall. She says as long as Minnesota companies can research and innovate, new jobs will emerge.

But Rubin also says that for high tech companies and workers, constant change will be a fact of life. In that climate, there are strong differences of opinion about whether unions could be an important anchor for IT workers, or nothing but more dead weight.

News Headlines
Related Subjects