Labor issues at Microsoft prompt talk of policy changes
A group of workers employed by a Microsoft contractor successfully organized a union — a rare feat in the tech industry — and is now bargaining with its company over a contract.
Seattle Times technology reporter
After about a year working at Lionbridge Technologies on Microsoft’s Redmond campus, Marilyse Benyakar started asking questions.
Why did Lionbridge, hired by Microsoft to vet the content of Windows tablet applications, not offer paid time off or sick days? How long could Benyakar and other so-called temporary workers remain that way?
Those questions ultimately resulted in something exceedingly rare in the technology industry: a group of employees voted to form a union.
It began at a small gathering of employees who met with Lionbridge managers in the summer of 2013. The employees were told to be frank, and Benyakar says she asked whether she and other employees could get additional pay and benefits. Microsoft managers appeared happy with their work, she said.
“I thought it went well,” said Benyakar, who at the time was making $22 an hour to review the content of apps in her native French and other languages.
The next day, a Lionbridge manager told Benyakar she was being laid off.
Benyakar, at the urging of Philippe Boucher, like Benyakar a French-born employee of the Lionbridge group, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
While the NLRB was investigating whether she had been wrongfully dismissed, Lionbridge opted to offer to settle the case. The Waltham, Mass., technology translation-services company also agreed to post standard-issue notices informing employees of their rights to organize.
Boucher, who earlier in his career worked as an advocate for restrictions on tobacco products, saw an opening.
“Marilyse’s case was an invitation for us,” Boucher said. “People didn’t know their rights.”
So, in September, the group of Lionbridge workers, after months of organizing, voted to unionize, founding the Temporary Workers of America. The membership includes the roughly 40 employees of the Lionbridge unit, which vets the content of applications in foreign languages to make sure they line up with Microsoft’s standards.
Now the union and company are bargaining over the contract.
A Lionbridge spokeswoman said the firm doesn’t believe its employees need or are benefited by a union, but respects their right to organize.
The effort of Boucher and his colleagues is the latest attempt to organize some of the legions employed by companies that provide Microsoft with contract workers.
The software maker directly employs more than 40,000 people in Washington. But Microsoft, like many technology giants, has come to rely on contract workers for both projects and regular tasks, from customer support to graphic design and software testing.
Microsoft said the company is considering changes to its vendor policies in an effort to benefit the company’s contractors.
“We appreciate that these are important issues, and we’ve begun considering possible changes to our policies that would have the potential to positively influence working conditions at our suppliers,” a Microsoft spokesman said on Wednesday.
At Microsoft, the roster of contractors employed at any given time is said to number in the tens of thousands. The company doesn’t release specific figures.
A decade ago, Microsoft paid out a $97 million settlement to more than 8,000 temporary workers, self-styled “permatemps,” who said the company had unfairly excluded them from the stock options then awarded to permanent employees.
Bolstered as the class-action lawsuit was winding its way through the legal system, a group of temporary workers on Microsoft’s campus in 1998 chartered a union, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech.
WashTech met with limited success in the decade that followed.
Union officials say it’s a tough climb to persuade relatively well-compensated technology workers — many of whom are foreign citizens in the country on work visas sponsored by their employer — to speak out. Add the individualist streak common among the typical technology worker, and unions remain rare both in Silicon Valley and Puget Sound.
In 2013, 4.3 percent of employees classified under the Labor Department’s catchall category of computer and mathematical occupations were members of unions, below the 11 percent rate of union membership in all occupations.
“The logistics are a nightmare,” said Les French, a former president of WashTech.
Even when contract workers are interested in forming a union, they tend to find that to establish a bargaining unit they’d have to gather signatures from the other employees in their field both at Microsoft and around the country, French said.
That hasn’t stopped the occasional protest. Contractors at Microsoft have spoken up in recent years on matters such as mandatory furloughs and the pay cuts that came down as part of the cost-cutting efforts after the 2008 financial crisis.
But Boucher’s campaign is the first effort to unionize workers on Microsoft’s campus in years, union officials say.
Boucher, who holds a law degree received in France, spent last summer consulting with WashTech and other union officials. He read up on employment law and history at the Seattle Public Library’s main branch.
By August, Boucher and his allies had quietly gathered enough signatures to meet the NLRB’s threshold for a mandated vote on whether to unionize. In September, the Lionbridge unit cast their ballots in the hotel room across the street from Microsoft’s Redmond campus. The tally: 18 votes for, 13 against, and three challenged ballots that wouldn’t have swung the vote.
Boucher and his colleagues are in the early stages of talks with Lionbridge lawyers on the terms of a union contract. Their chief demands? Paid holidays, parental leave and a raise.
Tim O’Connell, a Seattle attorney who represents Lionbridge, said the company would continue to negotiate in good faith. He declined to specify what issues separated the company and the union.
The Lionbridge spokeswoman said the company’s practice of not offering temporary workers paid sick leave or vacation days was typical for the millions of contract workers in the U.S.
Boucher, who completed his third year at Lionbridge in December, counters that the temporary label loses its meaning when workers can stay in limbo for years.
“We’re in the exact same situation we were 15 years ago,” Boucher said of temporary workers. “It’s not the mine. But it’s 2015. Come on.”
Matt Day: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On twitter: @mattmday