Microsoft permatemps unionize

It started with a simple question: Could temporary workers get a raise and benefits similar to those enjoyed by permanent employees?

According to the Seattle Times, that’s the question that Marliyse Benyakar, a temporary worker, asked during a staff meeting called by managers at the firm for which she works.

Benyakar, who works for a staffing company called Lionbridge, is a permatemp, a worker classified as a temporary worker but whohas held the same job for an extended period.

Lionbridge contracts with Microsoft to review and edit Microsoft applications that have foreign language content. Benyakar and her fellow permatemps work at the Microsoft campus in Richmond, Washington.

The 40 Lionbridge permatemps in Benyakar’s section did not have benefits that permanent workers at Microsoft take for granted–health care insurance, paid sick leave, paid vacation, family leave, etc.

Before beginning the meeting at which Benyakar asked her simple question, the Lionbridge managers encouraged the permatemps to be frank with them.

Unfortunately, Benyakar’s frankness cost her her job. The day after the meeting, she was told that she was being laid off.

Benyakar subsequently filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charging Lionbridge with unfair labor practices.

The charge led to a settlement, which among other things, required the company to post a notice explaining that the workers had a right to join a union.

That led some Lionbridge workers to think that the time was ripe for them to form a union.

The pro-union workers began circulating a union representation petition. When they had enough signatures, they submitted it to the NLRB, which then called for a union election on September 11.

The election would decide whether Lionbridge workers wanted to join the Temporary Workers of America, an independent union organized by the Lionbridge permatemps, so that they could bargain collectively.

After the NLRB scheduled the election, the company immediately began to push back with an anti-union campaign.

During the six weeks between the time that the NLRB announced that a union election would be held and the election itself, the company held five captive audience meetings during work in an attempt to convince workers that they didn’t need a union.

“It’s interesting to see how LB (Lionbridge) wanted to paint such a dark and negative picture of the union,” wrote Philippe Boucher, one of the leaders of the union campaign, on the union’s blog after the third meeting.

The union is being formed “by the very people who were in the room (where the captive audience meeting took place) and are doing such a good job but cannot obtain any raise or real benefits . . . because that would put LB’s competitiveness in danger,” continued Boucher.

Unlike the company, which forced workers to attend captive audience meetings on company time, the union held no captive audience meetings to rebut the company’s propaganda and very few meetings of any kind; instead, union supporters relied on word of mouth, e-mail, and the union’s blog to present their case for a union.

As the election drew near, Boucher posted on the union’s blog a list of questions that workers should consider before voting on whether to choose a union.

“Do you come to work sick because you can’t afford to lose a day’s pay?” “Do you have health insurance?” “What’s it like to live paycheck to paycheck?” were some of the questions on the list.

Despite the advantages that the company enjoyed, the union won the election.

At first, it looked as if Lionbridge would challenge the results, but the company decided not to do so, and on September 19, the NLRB certified the Temporary Workers of America as the exclusive collective bargaining representative for the Lionbridge permatemps in Richmond.

Since then, the union and the company have engaged in three bargaining sessions. The last one was held January 7.

The Lionbridge workers aren’t the only temporary workers at the Microsoft campus. In fact, the company relies heavily on permatemps and the staffing companies like Lionbridge for whom they work.

Boucher has written an e-book entitled the Other Microsoft about the plight of these temporary workers.

“Almost half of Microsoft’s workforce are contracted through vendors who misclassify them as ‘temporary’,” writes Boucher. “As a result, they do not receive any benefits: no paid sick leave, no paid family leave, and no paid vacation.”

These are just some of the issues that Temporary Workers of America is trying to address as it bargains for its first collective bargaining agreement.