- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2000

Recent court decisions have opened the door for unions to organize computer and Internet workers in an industry that so far has defied attempts to unionize.

The most recent ruling came in U.S. District Court in New York two weeks ago. In that case, Time Warner Inc. agreed to pay $5.5 million in compensation and to reclassify many contract workers as salaried or hourly employees.

Union leaders said settlement of the U.S. Department of Labor's lawsuit against Time Warner gives workers the credibility they need to organize. Microsoft is still litigating two similar lawsuits by contractors and temporary workers who won court decisions for greater benefits.

So far, unions have largely failed to organize the growing technology industry because of its heavy dependence on contractors and temporary workers and the newness of the companies.

Large corporations such as America Online and Microsoft rely heavily on contractors. America Online also has a network of 10,000 volunteers, or "community leaders," to monitor members' use of its Internet portal.

Both companies have been the target of recent Labor Department complaints saying they exploit contract, temporary or volunteer workers.

"It's somewhat easier to organize workers into unions if they're classified as employees rather than contractors. These cases will help remove one of the obstacles to organizing these workers," said Chris Owens, a policy analyst for the AFL-CIO labor federation.

Jeff Miller, spokesman for the Communications Workers of America, said the Time Warner settlement and similar cases are encouraging technology workers who want to protect their rights.

"I think the whole area of unionizing high-tech workers has all of a sudden come under a spotlight," Mr. Miller said. "These casual workers are more and more aware of how they've been taken advantage of."

In Seattle, the Communications Workers of America is trying to organize a union among Internet retailer Amazon.com's customer representatives. Two weeks ago, the 400 hourly workers who respond to consumer complaints started collecting signatures for a union-organizing election. Despite failed attempts in 1998 and 1999, they hope to get enough signatures by Christmas to bring their union-organizing effort before the National Labor Relations Board. They complain about low wages, lack of job security and work schedules.

Although the Communications Workers of America has no active union-organizing campaigns in the Washington area among computer and Internet companies, Mr. Miller said organizers have engaged in "exploratory conversations" with employees. The union is the most active among labor organizations in the computer industry.

"People call us from these various companies about how to organize and what unions are all about," Mr. Miller said. "What we're doing is not all that different from what's happening with service people working for the airlines, the telephone companies and the telemarketers. We have the same issues: pay, benefits, hours of work."

America Online is planning a merger with Time Warner.

Contractors are paid on a piecemeal basis for each project they complete. They do not receive the health and pension benefits of employees and normally are not promoted within an organization.

In the Time Warner case, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a suit accusing the company of denying health and pension benefits to workers classified as contractors or temporary employees. The Labor Department said Time Warner misclassified workers who did the same jobs as salaried employees merely to deny them benefits.

On Nov. 17, Time Warner agreed to a $5.5 million settlement that will compensate contract and temporary workers for their lost health and pension benefits.

"It sends a clear message that workers who are asked to perform under the same criteria should also be treated fairly through coverage by a company's benefit program," said Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman.

Microsoft lost court battles in 1996, 1997 and 1999 preventing them from maintaining thousands of workers on a contract or temporary status.

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said that workers who work under the same conditions and supervision as official employees should get the same benefits, which included health care, pensions and stock purchase options. The exact classification of the contract and temporary workers, as well as the amount of their compensation, still is being litigated.

David West, executive director of the Center for a Changing Workforce in Seattle, an advocacy organization for temporary and contract workers, predicted that the changes in the computer and Internet work force will come slowly.

"The Microsoft case has been going on since 1992," Mr. West said. "All of these decisions are steps in the right direction for workers who have been denied benefits, but it's still going to take a lot of work. It's a different industry that sees itself as playing by different rules."

Sterling, Va.-based America Online is being investigated by the Labor Department because of similar complaints from its "volunteer" workers. The company gives them AOL memberships worth $21.95 per month in exchange for leading chat rooms, reporting violations of Internet rules and answering questions from other members.

Some of the 10,000 AOL volunteers filed a complaint with the Labor Department saying they were being asked to do the same work as employees but not receiving adequate compensation.

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