August 2011

Organizing IT Specialists Brings Tech-Savvy Professionals into the Fold
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John Shane doesn't wear a hardhat, scale transmission towers or string power lines. But he does eat, sleep and breathe infrastructure.

On the Web, that is.

Shane is part of the tight-knit team of information technology specialists who staff and run Indianapolis-based Web Connectivity, a rare-breed company that provides complex computer services almost exclusively to unions, including the IBEW, the auto workers, the sheet metal workers and many more.

"We want to take the best practices of the IT sector in the nonunion world and make them available and widespread for union members," he said.

But while Shane's union pride runs deep, he and his co-workers starting out in the company in the early 2000s were without a contract of their own. Leaders of Indianapolis Local 481 knew the IBEW could benefit workers in this traditionally hard-to-organize sector, so a top-down effort began in 2003 to bring the IT members under the local's umbrella.

"The workers came in wanting to do some projects for the local, and I explained to them the opportunities they could have being a union IT group," said Local 481 Business Manager Sean Seyferth. "Since coming on board, they've become very active in the labor movement. Our local is trying to be very cutting edge as far as how we communicate with the membership, and the IT team does an excellent job for us."

Becoming unionized also opened up the workers' market share. They now perform services for more than 330 clients, nearly all of them local unions of various trades.

While the bargaining processes went smoothly for the Local 481 IT members, Shane says his positive experience is the exception, not the rule.

"There are a lot of companies who'll hire a guy on salary but force him to work a 70-hour week," he said. "He can't complain or he'll get fired. It's just the same as in the nonunion electrical sector.

"Many of these workers don't have job security because there's nothing that holds employers' feet to the fire regarding how they treat employees," Shane said.

IBEW Membership Development Director for Professional and Industrial Organizing Gina Cooper agrees. "Anyone working in IT is in a field different than any other," she said. "Since you can have access to your work from nearly any location, companies can then expect you to work anywhere at any time. Vacations? Forget about it. They want you connected to your job around the clock.

"This is fertile ground for organizing," Cooper said. "But it's challenging because many of these workers are hired as independent contractors and bid against one another for work, which creates a race to the bottom. IT professionals need to band together. It is the only way for them to have the power to demand the dignity and respect in the workplace that they deserve."

Bringing Shane and his co-workers into the union fold has reaped political rewards for Local 481 and many other local unions across the country, while benefitting the movement as a whole.

Following the 2010 elections, which ushered in a wave of anti-worker lawmakers nationwide, Shane and his co-workers got busy. "We were getting calls from various local unions in places like Wisconsin telling us that they didn't have an efficient way to communicate with their membership online. They had newsletters and had done mailers, but they needed to be faster in getting their messaging out."

While their brothers and sisters were taking to the streets, the team members took to their keyboards and mouse pads. Rapid-fire messages and instructions were sent from the office to union clients nationwide on how to strategically use texting, Facebook, Twitter and other social media to mobilize for rallies and stay informed on fast-developing news stories.

Mere days after the Democrats lost the Indiana statehouse, the Local 481 IT team was already on the front lines—setting up Web sites for unions to oppose expected right-to-work legislation in the Hoosier State and working on search engine optimization so that pro-worker hits ranked high.

"At the campaign's peak, if you went to Google and typed in 'right-to-work,' one of the first hits you'd see was for our site," Shane said. "We set up several similar sites. There are a few where we purposely tried to pick domains which would serve as search terms for the general public—just another trick to get moved up in the search engines. We then asked every local in the state to link to these sites. This network, combined with the naming conventions, had quite a bit of momentum when we needed it most.

"This is definitely a unique environment to work in," said Shane, who shares office space with former Fortune 500 IT professionals and other computer whizzes who now bring their skills to the labor movement. "I think that so far, we've been making some good strides."

Employees attend the JATC training for telecom workers, their current classification, but talks are in the works to open up a new trade classification for the IT specialists.

"What we always push when we talk with locals is that if it's not good for the members, it's not what we should be doing," Shane said.

Local 481 leaders praised the quality work of the IT team.

"Their knowledge and contributions are incredible," said Seyferth, the business manager. "We're very happy with the work they do for the movement."

Leaders of Indianapolis Local 481 organized employees of Web Connectivity—one of the few IT signatory contractors in the IBEW.