05 Jul 2022
Karen Estevenin talks about organizing since the early 2000s, including her experiences with WashTech, a CWA-affiliated campaign at Microsoft, Amazon, and other companies. Despite 20 years of changes in and around tech, the story remains the same: we can only count on worker solidarity to overcome union busting and internalized fears of becoming part of a union.
Remember When Microsoft and Amazon Were Young?
In 1998, a group of Microsoft workers in perpetual temporary contracts began organizing in opposition to their precarious working conditions. Roughly one-third of Microsoft’s workforce in Puget Sound was hired through temporary agencies at that time, which meant contract workers lacked the healthcare, paid vacation, and sick leave that the permanent employees they worked next to enjoyed. Contract workers were also constantly worried that their jobs could suddenly be eliminated. These workers launched the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, more commonly known as WashTech. While WashTech’s initial attempt to unionize the entire Microsoft workforce failed, they won a few advances by 1999, resulting in improved benefits and many temporary workers being hired permanently. The pressure made clear how integral the contractors were to Microsoft’s operations, and the company was forced to respond.
The history of WashTech offers key lessons in the ongoing struggles of TVCs. It also highlights the vital importance of building worker solidarity to overcome legal challenges and union busting – and to become a union at all. The contract workers first connected and formed a committee through the King County Labor Council and were supported by labor allies in the National Writers Union and the Communication Workers of America (CWA). Then, through the financial and logistical support of the CWA, WashTech became a union by affiliation. WashTech initiated campaigns to organize temporary and contract workers at Microsoft, Amazon, AT&T, and other companies.
WashTech attracted academic attention for its new model of organizing in a white collar yet precarious workforce, including Enda Brophy’s System Error, Michelle Rodino-Colocino’s Technomadic Work, Danielle Dorice Van Jaarsveld’s Collective Representation, and Alan Hyde’s section on immigrant support networks. Enda Brophy, a professor of communication and labor studies at Simon Fraser University, interviewed Karen Estevenin about her organizing work with WashTech as part of his dissertation, The Organizations of Immaterial Labour: Knowledge Worker Resistance in Post-Fordism, and related articles.
Today, more than 15 years later, Karen describes her experiences in her own words. When even recent history within the tech industry is easily forgotten, Karen’s willingness to share her experiences is an important part of keeping tech labor history alive.
The Worker’s Perspective
The Dotcom Days
My organizing career started in the dotcom era, in the early 2000’s, as a worker organizing my own workplace. Back then, “tech work is so great!” was the old line. I worked for Enthusiasm.com doing proofreading/editing and gathering data and content. Enthusiasm.com was bought by Metro One Telecommunications, the 411 people, for the use of the data we gathered and formulated. Before the move to Metro One, we were a small company, and perks included having control over your work schedule and enjoying free sodas from the office fridge. It was hip to work at this small company, but there was always lots of talk about Microsoft and other booming tech companies in the area. Young people really wanted to work in tech. These companies have changed a lot since then; now they’re older, established, and gigantic corporations.
The changes that took place between the transition from Enthusiasm.com to Metro One surfaced a lot of issues. The owners received massive bonuses, but us workers got notified that our health benefits were getting worse and costing more, among many other changes without our voice. So we decided to unionize with CWA, the Communication Workers of America. Metro One lawyered up and began a long union busting campaign that beat our union back by a loss of two votes. It was devastating. If we had stronger laws, allowing for immediate recognition by the National Labor Relations Board, management would have had to recognize us right away: as soon as we had sent in our petition for recognition, we would have won by a lot. We had over 80% of our workplace signed onto a petition. Even 20 years later, it still makes my blood boil.
In organizing conversations I’ve had over the years, I reference those experiences of inequality and the disproportionate power an employer can have when there is no union. Sometimes bosses come down really hard and bust the union before it’s formed, sometimes they try to bust an existing union. In either case, and the many other ways employers come down on working people, I can relate to that feeling. That is part of what grounds me in my work to continue fighting and advocating for justice, and building power for working people.
The CWA organizer who was working on our campaign became a mentor and encouraged me to get more involved with the labor movement. I started out volunteering with WashTech and then got hired doing administrative work and then later became an organizer.
Organizing was a little different before the rise of social media platforms. I learned how to build worker power with a group in my living room, with a pencil and legal pad. But many of the issues that workers face today, like concerns over employer-sponsored visas that make workers vulnerable and nervous about retaliation for organizing and lack of transparency around pay equity, were present in the dotcom days, too.
CWA has been organizing in the tech industry for a long time. After my first organizing campaign within my own workplace, one of my early experiences organizing tech workers was a campaign in 2001 with Cingular wireless (now AT&T) call center and IT workers who were organizing. Through a national “neutrality agreement”, over 600 people won a union in their call center workplace. CWA won a neutrality agreement with Cingular Wireless to allow a more neutral environment to organize, should the workers demonstrate a majority. This gave us access to work spaces and a “card check” process from the employer to avoid the lengthy waiting period and contentious election that my coworkers and I went through at Metro One. With a level playing field, the organizing campaign at Cingular was a huge win, despite the fact that “neutral” is a vague term and management didn’t always remain neutral in practice.
WashTech and the Wobbly Method
I wasn’t at WashTech when it started, but when I was coming in there was excitement in the air. WashTech started with Microsoft and Amazon, just when those companies were really getting big. There was a lawsuit at Microsoft around “perma-temp” workers, or long-term temporary workers, who didn’t have the same benefits as traditional employees. It resulted in a victory, which led to benefits for temp workers that previously only existed for regular employees.
This created some momentum, and WashTech used a method modeled on the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies. Workers coming together through WashTech didn’t have a contract and didn’t have a formal bargaining unit. Instead, they were just trying to create density in a certain workplace. The idea was that once there is enough density, then you can file or demand recognition from an employer.
In many ways, we are still in that phase with tech workers today. There are many tech unions that are working to make change without formal recognition. Now we are also starting to see more successful union elections (like the Times Tech Guild) and some official contracts, such as the one recently won at Kickstarter United. But there are still many organizing efforts that fall outside of formal union campaigns and ratified contracts.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, workers in tech were also geographically dispersed and often working remotely, as they are today, but we had fewer digital platforms to make communication easy back then (no Slack, for instance). Information is power. There weren’t on-the-ground connections and water cooler conversations happening. People didn’t know there were disparities between their wages and working conditions. Workers came in on different work visas. Employers would leverage visas against workers and make them fearful that they would be forced out of the job and the country. Management would demand that people work long hours, sometimes 80 hours a week. So finding ways of coming together and sharing that information are a crucial part of building power.
We had a national online news platform – TechsUnite.org – that shared stories, organizing information, and issues in the industry, and periodically gathered people together over conference calls. This was an important way to build density in these disparately located tech workplaces. Several hundred workers paid 11 bucks a month as dues to keep TechsUnite going. We had an organizer who would set up meetings to get workers to talk openly about issues with each other. There were similar issues across the industry and across companies. Amazon was so small when initial organizing and mobilizing was taking place; it was just a bookseller. But it’s such a behemoth now, which makes that kind of cross-company organizing harder.
Workers today should keep in mind that even without a formal union contract, people can pressure their employers. Stories are so powerful. Once people can connect, talk, and share stories, they have more power in density.
Changing Demands with the Times
I see deep connections and similar fights in the dotcom organizing days and today, and in the public and private sectors, too. I worked for CWA/WashTech for about 2 years. In early 2006, I went to work at UFCW21, now UFCW3000, first as a Union Representative and then as an organizer, for close to nine years. I then did a short stint with PTE17 (now PROTEC17), and then went to work with Teamsters 117, as the Director of Internal Organizing for about five years. And now, I’ve had the honor and privilege of serving as the Executive Director back at PROTEC17 for three years. I’m also on the Executive board of the Martin Luther King County Labor Council. Time flies!
In the past, organizing issues were largely centered on wages, benefits, and hours, such as when we formed our union at Metro One. Now workers are talking about the cost of housing, the community in which they live, racial equity, climate change, and how their employer is either moving the dial in a positive way on these issues, or being obstructionist. When I talk to workers, I like to relay the purpose of our union as a vehicle to help drive some of these changes with positive impact. Racial justice and climate justice were not really surfacing as workplace issues 15 or 20 years ago.
Organizing conversations were more workplace centric. Now broad-based community issues are bringing people together. Pushing for policies and procedures, such as hiring practices and career development that are put through a racial justice and equity lens, is also an important component of negotiations. This is all on the table now. I’m so inspired by this, and so hopeful and excited about the energy that is coming into the labor movement. We need it. Unions have to take a look at systems that are oppressive and work to get rid of them. I will add that unions and the labor movement have our own work to do on this as well – massive amounts, to be clear. Not doing so will be detrimental to our movement as continued systemic inequality has been present, honestly, since the beginning.
Some of what we experience in public sector IT is that a lot of people come in from non-union private workplaces, so it is a more challenging area of the public sector. They have been inundated with anti-union rhetoric. But many are also coming because they are looking for a different kind of workplace, one that is more collaborative and less stressful. We are pretty successful at getting new employees to sign up for the union. When we meet with public sector workers for the first time, we say congrats, you got a job with the City of Portland or King County, etc. It’s a great job with a rich contract in a workplace that has been unionized for a long time. It’s important to join your union and sign up to be part of that collective power. These first interactions with IT workers always stand out from others. They consistently make comparisons to their previous and often private sector workplace. Public sector IT jobs typically don’t pay as much as in the private sector, but we do have unions, the ability to negotiate a strong contract with guarantees, job security, and a voice in decisions that impact their job and life, and that counts for a lot.
Technology has also changed so dramatically. I’m only 45, but feel really outdated when it comes to some of this. We have giant conference calls with people from all over the county. People are finding the convenience of virtual spaces and calls, along with social media, really helpful. We still try to have face-to-face conversations when possible. Nothing really beats a face-to-face organizing conversation, but we’re getting pretty effective with video conferencing.
I think it’s fair to say that tech worker culture has changed a lot since the late 1990s. Workers – in tech and elsewhere – are connecting their experiences at work to their health and well-being. Work/life balance is a bigger issue than it was in the last decade. People want flex time, they want time to contribute to their communities and be with their families, and for self-care. People are talking more about the stress of their workplace being understaffed and being overworked; they don’t want to be burned out. People don’t want to be in 6-8 meetings a day and be exhausted, or not valued for their labor, especially in the pandemic. That’s a shift.
Thank you to Enda, Tamara, Bronwen, Sahil, and the TWC crew for championing this story. And reminding me that although it feels like a blast from the past for me, the themes, lessons, and (many) issues are still so relevant.