- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

High-tech employees who once shunned unions while they earned top salaries are turning to organized labor in an effort to keep their jobs from being taken by foreign workers, according to union recruiters.

Corporations say they save money by sending the jobs to less-expensive countries, like India, or bringing in foreign engineers who work for half the salary of their American counterparts.

Meanwhile, their U.S. employees feel betrayed but powerless to stop the economic trend.

“A lot of people are really angry,” said Harrison Picot, a Hay Market, Va., database administrator who lost his job to a foreign engineer three years ago. “They’re angry but they’re ineffectual.”

He was earning $100,000 a year from a major government contractor. The engineer from India who replaced him did the same job for about $40,000 a year.

Shortly after he was laid off, Mr. Picot joined WashTech, a Seattle-based affiliate of the Communications Workers of America for high-tech workers. The union sympathized with him but so far job security has eluded him.

“I’ve gotten one face-to-face interview in the last year and I got one interview last year and that’s it,” Mr. Picot said.

Union officials say they hear similar stories from high-tech workers again and again. At the same time, the loss of jobs to foreign countries is a gain for unions seeking new members.

A new survey from the Employment Law Alliance, a group of labor and employment lawyers, found that 37 percent of Americans said they would seek union representation if their jobs are threatened by “offshoring,” or the transfer of jobs to foreign countries.

Other threats come from foreigners who enter the United States on H-1B visas, which the federal government grants to foreign workers with specialized skills.

In one example, the Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., turned over its computer programming in 2001 to a U.S. contractor that used workers on H-1B visas. The foreign workers were paid substantially less than the American workers.

“They’re the most scared workers I’ve ever seen in my life,” Andy Banks, director of organization for the Silver Spring-based International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), said about high-tech workers.

Offshoring was a key issue that helped the IFPTE recently organize 250 engineers and architects employed by the city of San Jose, Calif. The union plans a drive to organize engineers in Seattle soon.

High-tech workers from several Washington area companies have spoken with Mr. Banks about joining a union. However, they are concerned they will lose their jobs if their employers know they are seeking union representation.

About 240,000 American high-tech jobs have been lost to foreign countries since January 2001, according to WashTech officials.

“Our current free-trade policies are more toward improving the economies of the most powerful companies at the cost of our middle class,” said Marcus Courtney, WashTech president.

WashTech and other organizations that follow employment trends say the worst is yet to come.

“Every sign is one of acceleration,” Mr. Courtney said.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research estimates that 830,000 such positions will be relocated to India, Russia and other low-wage nations by the end of 2005, and that 3.4 million jobs representing $136 billion in U.S. wages will be lost by 2015.

The issue’s potency, particularly during a jobless economic recovery, was proved last month when the Communications Workers of America negotiated a new contract with SBC Communications Inc. after a four-day strike. As part of the deal, the San Antonio phone company agreed to work with the union to bring an estimated 3,000 company jobs in India and the Philippines to the United States.

During the strike by the Communications Workers’ 102,000 members, thousands of picketers throughout the country hoisted anti-offshoring signs saying “SBC Unpatriotic” and “Keep Jobs in America.”

Recruiting high-tech workers into unions would be welcome relief for organized labor.

Fewer than 10 percent of the nation’s private-sector workers now are unionized, down from a peak of 37 percent in 1960, according to federal statistics.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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