A year after voting to be represented by a union, a group of contract technology workers has yet to reach an agreement on a contract with the company that employs them.

Share story

For many contract-technology workers, Labor Day is just another workday.

Monday’s holiday is a paid day off for full-time employees of Microsoft, Amazon.com and other major technology companies.

But in the case of thousands of hourly contract workers, including the Seattle area’s newest union of technology workers, the choice is to take an unpaid day off or come into the office.

“Many people will chose to do that,” said Philippe Boucher, one of the leaders of the Temporary Workers of America. “They cannot afford to lose one payday.”

About 40 workers employed by Lionbridge Technologies to vet the content of Windows applications voted in a Redmond hotel room last September to form a union.

A year later, the union and Lionbridge still haven’t agreed to a contract, illustrating the challenges of organizing over working conditions in the technology sector.

For Boucher, the delay is further evidence that the high-tech boom hasn’t been felt by all the industry’s workers.

His unionization drive wasn’t an isolated incident. Security workers, bus drivers and cleaners working for technology companies from Silicon Valley to New York have advocated for better benefits in the past year.

Last month, The New York Times published a lengthy expose on the pressure-cooker for white-collar workers at Amazon.com, illustrating that the concern about treatment of employees isn’t limited to blue-collar workers.

And last week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) expanded the standards for “joint employers,” raising the possibility that technology companies relying on contract labor could be held liable for labor practices of their subcontractors and forced to the bargaining table with unions seeking to organize subcontractors.

It was clear from the first bargaining talks between Lionbridge and the Temporary Workers of America that the two sides started far apart, Boucher said. The union asked for a raise, paid vacation, holidays, parental leave and other benefits. Lionbridge’s lawyers rejected the proposal, he says, offering no added benefits.

After Microsoft mandated this year that its contractors start offering 15 days of paid time off, Lionbridge’s lawyers included that in their proposal, Boucher said. Ultimately, he said, he realized the addition of paid time off was the best the union would be able to achieve.

At the most recent bargaining talks, “We agreed to all their terms,” he said. “We knew we would not get anything else.” The union, Boucher said, is waiting on Lionbridge to draw up the contract so it can be put to a vote of members.

Tim O’Connell, a Seattle attorney representing Lionbridge, said there are still some issues the union and company have agreed upon in principle but haven’t finalized.

“It is fair to say there has been agreement to much of it,” O’Connell said. Still, “we have some provisions that haven’t been written up yet.”

The arrival of the anniversary of the unionization vote is a potentially ominous one for the Temporary Workers of America. Under labor law, voting to charter a union starts the clock on one year of protection from further employee votes on the status of the union. After that, employees can vote to dissolve the union.

Still, Boucher’s campaign is already having an impact beyond his small group of translation workers.

Employees at Microsoft’s procurement office, the group that buys contract labor for everything from food service to software coding, have spent the past few months renegotiating contracts to bring suppliers in line with the company’s new paid-time-off mandate.

A significant number of contracts already have been renegotiated, a Microsoft spokesman said, and the company is on track to complete the process by its self-imposed March deadline.

Lionbridge, for its part, said earlier this year that it planned to be an early adopter of the policy. That’s been hindered, O’Connell says, by the bargaining talks with the union.

A collective-bargaining vote like the one last year at Lionbridge essentially freezes workers’ contract terms unless the employer and union agree to changes.

Boucher said the union would have signed off on an immediate paid-time-off inclusion.

O’Connell, though, says it was the company’s preference to wrap up talks on the contract as a whole, rather than offer the paid time off in a separate action. “It’s theoretically possible to give away things early on as part of the bargaining process,” he said. “But that’s not good bargaining.”