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Local Tech Community In Uproar Over Labor Rights Bill

Eric Ryan, co-founder of Method, discusses education reform with Marc Ecko, founder of Marc Ecko Enterprises, at the White House during a Summit Series event.
Eric Ryan, co-founder of Method, discusses education reform with Marc Ecko, founder of Marc Ecko Enterprises, at the White House during a Summit Series event. (Courtesy Of Summit Series)

"A lot of the work we do is very team-oriented," he said. "If all of a sudden you have a layer of bureaucracy that has a different set of rules for hiring, firing and rewarding employees, that's going to stifle creativity and our ability to innovate."

Proponents of the bill say it would help smaller companies weather the economic downturn. American Rights at Work, a nonprofit advocacy group, says that strengthening union organizing would help prevent layoffs.

"Data shows that union members are better suited to handle the recession because they have a mechanism to work with their employers to cut wages and benefits instead of cutting jobs," the group said in a statement. "By allowing more workers the ability to bargain for better wages, benefits and retirement security, the Employee Free Choice Act will put more money in the pockets of consumers so they can purchase needed goods and services from companies on Main Streets across our nation."

Though labor unions have a relatively small presence in the technology sector, less than 5 percent of the workers by some estimates, nearly 20 percent of private-sector employees in the telecommunications industry are union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of them are represented by the Communications Workers of America.

CWA President Larry Cohen said the introduction of the bill in Congress means "millions of working families are a step closer to gaining real bargaining rights that will enable them to have a better life and will help move our nation along the road to economic recovery."

But many local tech employers point to problems that have come from union dominance in the auto, steel and textile industries, in which salaries have, in some cases, risen to unsustainable levels.

"It starts a spiraling process -- wages just gradually rise and then eventually you aren't competitive anymore," said Bradford Schwartz, chief executive of Blue Canopy, a Reston-based IT consulting firm. ''Given the current economic climate, this could be the worst thing that could happen."

He added that tech worker salaries and benefits are among the most competitive. The average information-technology pro made $78,035 last year, a 4.6 percent increase from 2007, according to a survey of nearly 20,000 visitors to tech job site Dice.com.

The Arlington-based Consumer Electronics Association, whose members include Intel, Microsoft, Best Buy and Sony, also is forcefully pushing against the bill. Executive Director Gary Shapiro said some of his members have said they will be forced to move some or all of their manufacturing operations overseas if the bill is passed. Smaller companies likely will be most affected by the legislation, he said.

"Small companies need to be more flexible," he said. "If they want to change an assembly line, do research, give Christmas week off, they'll have to go through a union to do it."

The bill has majority support in the House and the Senate. But it needs 60 Senate votes to survive a filibuster.

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