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Labor unions trying to organize tech workers have largely struck stony ground. But in October, the spirit of turn-of-the-century labor leader Joe Hill flickered back to life at a San Diego-based Web business, OTVnet, where a five-member collective bargaining unit of production and development technicians joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The IBEW’s success in organizing workers at a tech startup is unusual, considering the number of unions that have so far been unable to organize in the face of strong opposition by company management. At Etown, a San Francisco-based consumer electronics site, a guild of the Communications Workers of America gained federal sanction to hold a union vote on Jan. 12, only to put the effort on hold and file a complaint, saying the company’s management illegally interfered with workers’ right to organize by threatening the company would close if unionization succeeded. Other union attempts to win converts at Amazon.com and IBM have sputtered in a similar manner. “We just don’t think it’s going to be in the best interest of our company or our employees,” an Amazon spokeswoman says. Technology companies’ negativity toward unions appears to be part of larger downward trend reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the study, the number of union members in the U.S. declined by 200,000 last year to 13.5 percent of the workforce, down from 20 percent in 1980. The sentiment toward unions is decidedly different at OTVnet, which develops Web communication tools and benefit systems for labor unions. For one thing, it was initially the union organizers — not the company management — who were cautious about unionization, according to OTVnet CEO Seth D. Heyman. “They’re well aware that some companies will try to court unions for business development reasons, companies that want to service the union space,” he says. Though OTVnet ultimately gave up its right to terminate its union workers at will, the advantage, Heyman says, is that the union offers its members a comprehensive set of health, welfare, job training and 401(k) retirement benefits. “Now we can’t terminate without good cause,” he says. “It’s another protection for our workers, but good companies shouldn’t have a problem with it.” With history as an example, quite a few labor experts believe unions have a place in the Internet Economy. Labor union authority Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, points out that unionized telecom employees at old-line phone companies and customer service representatives at the major airlines do work that is similar to that of customer service reps at high-tech companies. Because of this, it may be simply a matter of time before unionization becomes more commonplace. “This is like 1934, when the debate was whether mass production workers at places like General Motors would ever be unionized,” Shaiken says, but he adds that though the OTVnet case sets a precedent for union organization, resistance by new economy management — who believe that unions are antithetical to being fast-moving and modern — is likely to remain strong. “The flip side is that unions could be a vital force in helping the high-tech sector weather tough times.” As for the IBEW, union business representative Kris Hartnett says he plans to use the collective bargaining agreement that succeeded at OTVnet as a pattern for other tech businesses. “The union head-butting approach of the 1930s and ’40s doesn’t work anymore,” he says. “We’re finding more saleable ways to show that labor-management-worker conversations are good for everyone.” Copyright � 2001 The Industry Standard

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