Convention Discussion: Hi-Tech Workers, a Challenge for the Labor Movement

BY: Henry Millstein| February 19, 2014

Submitted by Hank Millstein of California

As yet, the labor movement in the U.S. has made few inroads into this the high-tech industry. Our Party has theoretical insights and practical experience that could be of great value in reaching this increasingly important sector of the working class.

The high-tech workforce is divided into two principal sectors: the engineers and software developers who design the hardware and software for computers and related technology on the one hand and the production workers who produce and assemble the components on which the software runs. The former sector is highly trained and relatively well paid; the latter requires considerably less training and, in the U.S., has been comprised largely of immigrants, mostly women, and their pay scale is, unsurprisingly, far lower than that of the engineers and software developers.

Over the past three decades the greater portion of production work in the high-tech sector has been moved overseas to cheaper labor markets. Even over a ten-year period, from 2002 to 2012 (the earliest and latest dates for which comparable figures are available), the number of production workers involved in computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing has dropped from 55,110 to 16,920, according to Department of Labor statistics; the number of workers listed in the closely related occupation of “semiconductor processors” fell in the same period from 43,360 to 21,380; the figure for 1997 was 64,650.

By contrast, the ranks of software developers, whether of applications or systems software, have grown from 611,800 in 2002 to 978,040 in 2012. The demand for this upper level of high-tech workers continues to thrive.

Further proof of this differential in demand for production versus software development workers is the growth in the disparity (already large) between the pay of these two groups. Between 2002 and 2012, the mean hourly pay of production workers in the computer industry went from $12.49 to $14.31, while that of software developers went from $35.97 to $47.08. Adjusted for inflation over that same period, these figures show that production workers suffered a drop in real wages of 15%, while software engineers enjoyed a gain in real wages of 28%.

The wide disparity between the shrinking production sector and the growing engineering sector of workers in the computer industry obviously impacts the prospects of organizing either group.

The first efforts at organizing workers in the computer industry were made in the 1980s and targeted the then relatively large pool of production workers. San Francisco State University sociologist Karen Hossfeld has published a study of these efforts, “Why Aren’t High-Tech Workers Organized? Lessons in Gender, Race, and Nationality from Silicon Valley,” found in the collection Working People of California and based on research between 1982 and 1993.  The workforce involved at that time consisted mostly of Filipino and Vietnamese immigrant women. The unions attempting to organize in Silicon Valley included the Glaziers, UE, and the Machinists (International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Worker). The CWA (Communications Workers of America) tried to organize in the Route 128 corridor of Massachusetts, another center of the high-tech industry.

None of these efforts succeeded. Hossfeld attributes this failure in part to the relatively small resources that the unions granted these campaigns and to the very real threat (since then largely realized) of relocation, but above all to a lack of sensitivity to issues of race, nationality, and gender in dealing with a workforce largely composed of Filipina and Vietnamese immigrant women.

The other major sector of the high-tech industry workforce, the software engineers, poses major challenges to organization. From anecdotal evidence and personal conversation with people involved in the industry, the highly trained workers in the software industry are generally resistant to unionization. Though from a Marxist standpoint they are clearly members of the working class generating enormous profits for CEOs and shareholders, they are said generally to see themselves as “professionals” rather than workers. Many hope and indeed plan to become entrepreneurs themselves and thus see their interests as aligned with those of the venture capitalists who fund such efforts.

This is not to say that workers in the software sector have no grievances that unions could address. Job security is a paramount issue for these workers, in part because of offshoring of jobs and in part from competition from foreign workers brought into the US under H1-B and L-1 visas, who generally work for less than their native counterparts.

There have been some union inroads into this sector. Most notable among these at the present time is probably the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, CWA Local 37083. Despite its name, this organization, focusing on temp workers and freelancers in the high-tech industry (including but not limited to software engineers), has members nationwide. .

Washtech was founded in 1998 by Microsoft contract employees and has so far organized and won collective bargaining rights at four companies. Currently, its primary focus is combating offshoring of technology jobs. The Seattle Times has named Washtech “the technology union leading the national fight against offshoring.”

Washtech successfully lobbied Congress to ask the GAO to study the trend of offshore outsourcing and its impact on the high-tech economy. It has succeeded in getting one of its members elected to the Washington state legislature and helped to introduce legislation opposing offshoring in more than 30 states.

The CWA has also organized IBM employees, from service workers to engineers, into Alliance@IBM, CWA local 1701. While this organization has not yet won bargaining rights with the tech giant, it is active on a number of issues, including IBM’s destruction of U.S. jobs through offshoring.

The union to which I belong, the National Writers Union, provides one model of unionism that may be viable for many tech workers. This union, organized as Local 1981 of the United Auto Workers (UAW), is specifically for freelance writers. It therefore does not organize for representation at specific workplaces but serves as a collective voice for freelancers fighting to advance their interests in the face of corporate power. Most notable among its successes are some significant victories in establishing writers’ rights to compensation for work that appears in electronic form. The union also maintains a division to aid writers on contracts and grievances with publishers, both print and electronic.

There seems to be little union activity at present among the dwindling number of production workers in the high tech industry. There are, however, organizing drives and other forms of struggle among some of the service workers at high-tech corporations. The SEIU is organizing security workers on the Google campus. Apple Store employees have filed a class-action lawsuit against the tech giant’s bag search policy, demanding payment for the time required for searches of personal belongings at the end of their work hours. There are undoubtedly other struggles going on among workers in the industry that I have not yet had the time to ferret out.

The issues involved in organizing workers in and around the growing technology sector of the economy are clearly many and complex. Here I point out four areas confronting the labor movement in this and other sectors of the working class, issues on which Communists and other progressives have both theoretical insight and practical experience to contribute to the labor movement as a whole.


  1. The need to build unity across lines of race, nationality, and gender.
  2. The need to build unity between different sectors and income levels of the working class. The urgency of this task has been shown by a recent series of protests by low-income residents of San Francisco against the corporate buses transporting workers of Google and other tech giants to their jobs. The protesters blame the “techies” for skyrocketing rents as these relatively well-paid workers move into traditionally affordable neighborhoods. These charges reflect an economic reality, but progressive forces need to make clear that the appropriate targets are the real estate interests seeking maximum profits off the influx of a new group of tenants and to promote an understanding of the common interests of all sectors of the class.
  3. The need for international solidarity among workers at all levels and to build an international struggle to defend technology workers worldwide.
  4. The need for new forms of unionism that fit the new work conditions, especially of software engineers, in the high-tech industry.

The views and opinions expressed in the Convention Discussion are those of the author alone. The Communist Party is publishing these views as a service to encourage discussion and debate. Those views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Communist Party, its leading bodies or staff members. The CPUSA Constitution, Program, and all its existing policies remain in effect during the Convention discussion period and during the Convention.

For details about the convention, visit the Convention homepage
To contribute to the discussion, visit the Convention Discussion webpage

30th National Convention, Communist Party USA
Chicago | June 13-15, 2014



    Hank Millstein is a long-time peace and labor activist. He's a fiction writer and journalist and a member of the National Writers Union. A practicing Roman Catholic and activist in several faith-based social justice organizations, he serves on the National Committee and the Religion Commission of the Communist Party USA.

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