Monday, December 22, 2008

Unions Looking For New Industries To Destroy

MSNBC - Organized labor’s big legislative push next year might alter the nature of employment in the Bay Area’s tech-heavy regions.

Major unions are backing passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a federal bill that would make it harder for companies to combat union-organizing drives. Some labor lawyers and union backers speculate that should the act pass ­— a likely scenario given support by President-elect Barack Obama and many Democratic lawmakers — it could spark rounds of organizing efforts at tech companies, which typically have not seen much union activity.

The bill’s passage will lead to “significant organizing efforts in Silicon Valley,” said Garry Mathiason, a labor and employment attorney at Littler Mendelson P.C. Silicon Valley’s tech employers “are not immune merely because they are in technology or businesses where little union organizing has taken place.”

The federal bill would confer new organizing powers on unions. Labor groups would have the choice of asking workers to vote for representation by signing cards instead of going through secret-ballot elections. The so-called “card check” method is favored by unions since it can be done without an employer’s knowledge. Under traditional secret-ballot elections, companies typically have months to mount opposition.

The bill also authorizes an arbitrator to impose a first contract if a union fails to reach an agreement with management after a union’s formation. Under current law, if the two sides don’t reach a contract within a year, the union usually loses its right to be the exclusive bargaining agent for the workers.

Hoping to reverse declines in union membership, organized labor said the act would raise wages, helping the middle class. Business groups are fighting the legislation, saying it would increase costs, prompting layoffs.

The Employee Free Choice Act was not written with places like Silicon Valley in mind, experts said. More likely early targets are workers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other such hourly employees. But with the country’s political environment expected to become more favorable to unions next year, organized labor’s reach probably won’t be limited to traditional venues.

“Times are changing,” said Mark Ross, a labor and employment lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw LLP. “We’re in a troubled economy. People may be looking for other ways of protecting themselves and insuring that they are compensated appropriately.”

Two employer groups that represent large numbers of tech companies — the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network — declined to comment. The Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce did not return a call for comment.

Bay Area technology companies have long-term employment growth potential, and unions have gotten little traction with them thus far, aside from janitorial organizing in recent years. The region’s shaky employment status could make union pitches more attractive. Consider some of the pain being felt by workers just this quarter: Adobe Systems Inc. is cutting 8 percent of its workforce; Applied Materials Inc. is cutting 12 percent; EBay Inc. is cutting 10 percent; Sun Microsystems Inc. is cutting 18 percent and Yahoo Inc. is cutting 10 percent.

Unemployment in Silicon Valley has risen to 6.9 percent, up from 4.9 percent 12 months ago. In San Francisco and San Mateo counties, unemployment is 5.6 percent, up from 4 percent a year ago. Unemployment in the East Bay is 7.1 percent, up from 4.9 percent 12 months ago.

Companies are freezing salaries to save money. Workers at Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, will get year-end bonuses but will not get pay hikes next year.

Union representation in tech is well below national averages. Across the country, 12.1 percent of private employees are represented by unions. In the tech field, nothing comes close. Unions cover 4.8 percent of computer and mathematical occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Organized labor represents 4.1 percent of computer and electronic products manufacturing jobs. Among Internet service providers, 1.6 percent of workers have union representation. In the Internet publishing world, so few workers are covered by unions that they don’t even register in federal surveys.

Even as the economic and political environment might favor union gains, historic and cultural forces are working against widespread union acceptance in technology fields.

“Silicon Valley is really very liberterian politically,” said Jan English-Lueck, a San Jose State University professor who studies the culture of the region. “There is a strong narrative of individuals in garages being successful, and that vision is not something that lends itself to organizing.” Unions, she said, “undermine the idea that I can do anything. You have a couple of really big cultural reasons against organization.”

Union supporters are undeterred.

“A forward-thinking union could set up a web site to create a non-stop certification drive at an unlimited number of Silicon Valley companies,” said John Miano, the founder and a board member of the Programmers Guild, a professional society that advances the interests of workers in information technology fields. “This bill has the potential for having a major impact upon Silicon Valley and technology fields.”