Friday, March 30, 2007

Microsoft workers feel the pain

Workers in the textile, steel, and manufacturing industries have been losing jobs, wages and benefits for years, but most of America turned a blind eye to the situation. That may be changing according to David Sirota, because the upper-middle professional class is starting to feel some pain - and they're starting to make some noise.

Windows Into Populism’s Rise, here's a snippet of Sirota's recent visit to Microsoft's headquarters:
Pundits today seem puzzled by the Lou Dobbs-ification of politics — the sudden political emergence of economic issues such as trade, jobs, wages and even immigration, and the meteoric ascendance of populist red-state politicians such as Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, also a Democrat, demanding immediate change. But on a recent trip to the iconic capital of the upper- middle class professional, it all made perfect sense.

With buzzing twentysomething worker bees and beige low-rise buildings dotting a bucolic setting, the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., looks like a cross between a university and a suburban office park. The comfortably tranquil image is carefully massaged by company icon Bill Gates, who cheerily testified to Congress this month that “anyone here in the United States who has [computer engineering] skills is going to have a super-high-paying jobs.” Yet a darker reality emerges when talking to workers.

They pointed me to company documents published by the worker advocacy group WashTech, proving Microsoft salaries for mid-level full-time employees have been stagnating, even as company revenues rise. They fumed over how the company employs thousands of “permatemps” — full-time employees technically designated “temporary” so the company does not have to pay them as well or provide them benefits.

Showing how the immigration backlash extends beyond odious xenophobia and into legitimate economic worries, they lamented that wages are forced ever lower by Microsoft’s use of the H-1B visa program — a program that forces permatemps to compete with temporary, nonresident workers from other countries who are imported here by companies because they will accept low pay (government data shows tech companies pay H-1B workers $13,000 per year less than American workers in the same jobs). “They say they need H-1B’s because they can’t find a qualified American,” whispered one permatemp in the hall outside his office. “What they really mean is they can’t find a cheap American.”

Pay grades are only part of the ferment — it is also anxiety over job security at a time when 1.1 million American information-sector jobs have been eliminated in the past five years. While Gates told Congress that the demand for highly skilled computer workers “is going to guarantee them all jobs,” one 10-year Microsoft “permatemp” making $25-per-hour with no benefits told me everyone knows better.

“You can knock yourself out here and do your best and fix a thousand bugs,” he said. “But at the end of that, they can — and often do — just say goodbye. And everyone here knows that.”

Another permatemp said that while he helped build the new Vista operating system, he found not one Microsoft division that doesn’t fear showing up and having their keycards not work because all their jobs were sent to India. That concern is justified: A Microsoft slide presentation, also uncovered by WashTech, shows the company encourages foreign outsourcing in most major decisions.

WashTech has tried to convert workers’ anger into union drives. But those grinning, business-casual Microsoft executives have learned a thing or two about how to bust unions. One example: When a handful of Microsoft workers developing fledgling tax software took an initial step to unionize, the entire project was terminated by management. [emphasis mine]
As Sirota's article pointed out, when rich people's kids had to serve in Vietnam after the draft lottery was created, pressure to end the war changed policy; when companies like Enron started undermining the savings of rich people, Washington passed corporate accountability legislation; and when recent subprime mortgage defaults started hurting the stock market, Congress called it a crisis.

It's a shame that the pain has to trickle up to the rich before Washington takes notice and starts challenging wages, trade and outsourcing. We're all Americans. Getting Washington's attention shouldn't depend on the balance in our checkbook.


abi said...

You're right, the pain shouldn't have to trickle up. But it depends on who controls the government. And right now, it's the tiny majority that controls it.

Kathy said...

Good point, Abi, and I don't see it getting any better as long as the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen.

Libby Spencer said...

Economic insecurity always leads to a dissatisfied voter. I think that's partly responsible for the Republican's current downfall in public opinion.

People are willing to ignore the stuff when they have money in the bank. When the bills go up and the money doesn't, they start to pay more attention.

Kathy said...

Libby, you're right about money in the bank waking people up. Savings are zilch for most Americans and the government tells us to save more for retirement and spend more on health care, long-term insurance, etc. It's surreal. Where do they propose we get the extra money - print it?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I'm late to this party.

I've noticed this in high-tech contracting as well. A thousand "co-located" agencies have sprung up whose sole purpose seems to be to prove to their clients that there are no qualified tech workers to fill their open positions. These agencies drive salary requirements so low (a combination of low pay and a huge percentage of the top), that anybody with any experience simply refuses. These firms then go back to their clients and plead with them to use their "partner" in India/China/Russia/whereever.

A very pernicious little scam.

Kathy said...

Kvatch, that's disturbing to hear. The American public needs to start demanding moral and ethical behavior from corporations, and why isn't the religious right making a big deal about the way businesses conduct themselves?