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Thursday, March 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Union trying again to organize Microsoft

Seattle Times technology reporter

Hoping to capitalize on Microsoft employees' angst over compensation issues, a Seattle labor group is making another attempt at unionizing the software company.

Marcus Courtney, president of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, acknowledged it may take a long time, given unions' lack of traction in the software industry as a whole.

The new focus on Microsoft follows WashTech's success organizing a group of Cingular Wireless employees in November. That was its first victory in eight years of trying to unionize employees at Microsoft and other Seattle-area tech companies.

This time around, Courtney believes he has new ammunition:

Someone inside Microsoft anonymously mailed him several pages of confidential pay information, including details about pay scales, merit raises and stock awards.

Courtney believes the documents show Microsoft's salary ranges have barely risen since 2004. If accurate, they show pay scales haven't changed in the lower third of the company's pay scale.

"Ten years ago, it was a very different scenario with stock options," Courtney said. "I think we're in a very different economic climate, and this is really demonstrating that there's a decline in bargaining power among employees at the company."

Microsoft would not comment on WashTech's effort, but in a statement, the company said: "As part of our culture, we remain engaged in an ongoing dialogue with our employees on a range of topics, and will continue to do so in order to help ensure we maintain our competitive edge, whether it is in compensation, or elsewhere."

The statement also said Microsoft "offers an overall compensation package, including bonuses, stock and benefits, that is highly competitive in the industry."

But Courtney hopes to tap into employee frustration revealed on blogs such as Mini-Microsoft, where employees vent about topics such as the company's performance-review system.

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Base compensation has become a bigger issue since the value of Microsoft options fell with its stock. In 2003, the company phased out options and began using smaller stock awards to supplement salaries, ending the era of the fabled Microsoft Millionaire.

Yet some believe the company's overall benefits are still attractive. Fortune magazine in January ranked Microsoft 42nd on its list of the 100 best places to work and 11th among large companies.

It noted the company received 166,184 applications for 1,509 positions added during the past year.

Courtney said he doesn't know who sent the pay documents, which he received in a plain envelope.

They indicate that in Microsoft's current fiscal year ending June 30, the company budgeted for average merit increases of 3.2 percent for workers in technical positions. It also budgeted for a 1.7 percent rise in promotion-related compensation.

Also disclosed are salary ranges for technical jobs, not including sales and service-related positions. The salaries range from a minimum $25,500 up to a maximum $285,000.

Microsoft has tiered salary grades, similar to federal employees. At salary grade 60, the midrange, the minimum is $68,500 and the maximum is $96,500.

The company gives merit increases based on reviews that assign ratings of 2.5 to 5.0. Merit increases this year range from zero for 2.5 ratings to 8 percent to 9 percent for 5.0s, the documents say.

Courtney also received a 2004 chart showing stock awards that recruiters could offer upon hiring.

At salary grade 60, the standard awards ranged from 200 to 330 shares, and cash signing awards could be up to $10,000.

At 70, the top salary grade, recruiters could offer 10,400 to 13,000 shares.

Courtney said organizing Microsoft workers is an ongoing effort for WashTech, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America:

"Is it going to happen immediately? No, it's a long-term process," he said.

"But there increasingly is clear frustration around the company right now with management, and the way employees address that is with a union. At some point there will be a union at Microsoft, obviously."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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