REDMOND, WASH. — Philippe Boucher wears an orange badge when he comes to work on Microsoft’s sprawling campus. Others wear blue ones. A native French-speaker, he spends his day testing French apps to ensure they meet Microsoft’s high standards for quality and content.
Though he has worked on campus for three years, Boucher doesn’t work for Microsoft, not technically. Like the consultants, designers, security officers, caterers, shuttle bus drivers and those who mow the lawns, Boucher, 64, works for one of the more than 2,000 companies that Microsoft contracts with to do specialized work for which the company doesn’t want to hire its own employees. Not, in other words, the highly sought-after and highly paid software engineers.
That means, instead of the generous paid leave — time off for vacation, sick days, parental duties and federal holidays — that Microsoft offers its employees, Boucher, a temporary worker hired by Microsoft contractor Lionbridge, has had none.
“It creates two universes,” said Boucher, whose pay is stuck at $22 an hour.
So he set out to change the universe in this every-man-or-woman-for-themselves temporary, contract, contingent and freelance workforce in the Wild West of the on-demand economy.
He banded together other “permatemp” translators to do something straight out of the Industrial Revolution: They voted to create a union, the Temporary Workers of America.
They didn’t imagine their 33 members would wield much power at the collective bargaining table. But they hoped to get people’s attention.
With a barrage of e-mails to Microsoft board members, constant blogging by Boucher, and his self-published book, “The Other Microsoft,” they pressured the company to change.
“The only chance we have is to shame Microsoft and make them force contractors to stop exploiting us temporary workers,” Boucher said.
The publicity stunt worked.
On Thursday, Microsoft announced that it would require all of its contractors with more than 50 employees to offer 15 days of paid leave to their workers.
“We concluded that this is the right step for our business,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel. “We also hope that our experience — and especially the feedback we receive from our suppliers — will be valuable to others considering similar changes.”
The move, Smith said, was inspired by the growing national conversation over income inequality. It was also sparked by the roiling debate in Silicon Valley — which has always relied on contract workers — about how to treat them fairly. And it was due, in part, to Boucher’s big mouth.
When contacted in recent months by reporters from the Boston Globe, Seattle Times and The Washington Post, Microsoft officials said they were listening.
“The issues raised are important across the broad economy and there is an opportunity for government, employers and companies like ours that buy services to all play a role in addressing them,” spokesman Dominic Carr said earlier this year.
For his part, Boucher said he would reserve the right to claim victory until he sees how contractors such as Lionbridge implement the new paid leave policy.
Boucher’s dilemma — a temporary worker fighting for the benefits and protections of a permanent employee — is becoming the story of a growing share of the American workforce.
Traditional union membership — 11 percent of the workforce — is at the lowest level in nearly a century. And contract workers are mostly on their own to fight for a decent wage, benefits and work conditions.
Microsoft has been accused of taking advantage of contract workers before. It paid $97 million in 2000 to settle a lawsuit brought by temporary workers.
In Silicon Valley, contract workers are beginning to organize. Google and Facebook shuttle bus drivers have joined the Teamsters union. The union has also worked with Uber and Lyft drivers. Apple has agreed to make its contracted security guards permanent employees, entitled to the same benefits as the engineers who design its prized gadgets.
The New York-based Freelancers Union, with more than 200,000 members nationwide, offers benefits such as health care, information sharing and political advocacy.
Highly skilled and highly educated workers sought after as “talent” may be paid well and benefit from the flexibility of work as an independent contractor, economists say. But low- and middle-wage workers like Boucher, who could be more easily replaced, may not fare well at all.
“If there’s no bargaining power, and no legal changes, then more and more American workers are going to be on the losing end of the economic stick, with no job security and no predictability,” said Robert Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration and now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. “We spent a century trying to get away from that, yet now it’s a serious and growing problem.”
Reich estimates that 15 to 30 percent of the U.S. workforce could be considered temporary, independent or contract workers. The exact figure isn’t known. The Bureau of Labor Statistics last surveyed contract and temporary workers more than 10 years ago. Using a very narrow measure of “temporary help,” the BLS puts the share of temporary workers at
2.9 percent of the workforce, a
30 percent increase since 2004.
“As long as the labor market is weak, I expect that unions will continue to struggle, and contract employment arrangements will grow,” said Susan Houseman, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute in Michigan.
When Boucher talked about starting a union, everyone told him he was crazy. Unions don’t work, they said. Unions are corrupt. Unions block innovation and high-tech companies hate them.
While about 40 percent of all local government workers belong to unions, only 4 percent of those in computer and mathematical professions do, according to federal data, about as low a rate as that of food-prep workers and farmers.
“I had to make the idea sound hip and cool,” Boucher said. “I told people we were just neighbors helping neighbors, and that we’d be our own independent ‘start-up’ union.”
Boucher didn’t even hold organizing meetings, and instead sent e-mails, kept a blog and promised that membership would be only $2 a month. He was lucky, he said, many of the temporary workers he was trying to organize were originally from countries such as France and Germany, which have strong union traditions. “They immediately got it,” he said. “But they were afraid.”
Since the Great Recession, many of his co-workers have settled for temporary and contract work because they simply can’t find permanent jobs. Many were unwilling to risk losing even these tenuous positions.
But Boucher was convinced that making noise with a tiny union in the union-averse high-tech sector was the right strategy to improve their lot.
“Creating a union was indispensable,” Boucher said. “I never believed for a second we would get anything in traditional collective bargaining with Lionbridge.” And in several meetings this year, they hadn’t.
Lionbridge, a translation and online marketing technology company based in Waltham, Mass., which reported a profit of $8.1 million on $490 million in revenue last year, offers its 5,600 permanent workers and 96 temporary workers — including Boucher’s group at Microsoft — access to medical insurance and 401(k) plans. But, until now, only permanent employees have received paid vacation and sick days.
Lionbridge spokeswoman Sara Buda said the company is “still digesting” Microsoft’s new requirement. She estimated that fewer than 60 of its employees worldwide would be covered. “Lionbridge fully intends to be an early adopter,” she said.
As for Boucher’s union — which Lionbridge had said was unnecessary — paid leave “would be subject to our ongoing contract negotiations with them.”
On a recent day, Boucher, his orange Microsoft badge stuffed in the pocket of his frayed wool jacket, sat at an outdoor cafe table where he works awaiting the arrival of a temporary co-worker to plot union strategy.
In his softly accented English, Boucher explained how he relished David-and-Goliath battles like these.
A lawyer by training, Boucher spent most of his career taking on powerful tobacco companies in France. He moved to the Seattle area 15 years ago so his American wife could be near her aging mother, and kept up his anti-tobacco work as a consultant.
In France, he explained, he had six weeks of paid vacation. His wife had paid maternity leaves after the births of each of their four daughters. They had subsidized child care. “I knew the U.S. didn’t have these benefits,” Boucher said, “but I was surprised by how many young people had never heard of anything like paid vacation.”
When the recession hit, Boucher found himself without a job. He had been out of work for three years, running through his savings, borrowing from family to stay afloat, when he saw the Craigslist ad for the temporary translation job at Lionbridge. He leapt.
Now, he wakes at 4 a.m. in his Bainbridge Island condo to catch the 4:40 ferry to Seattle. A 5:40 bus gets him to Redmond, and a five-minute bike ride, with a bright yellow triangle on his backpack, puts him on the Microsoft campus shortly after 6 a.m. He takes one unpaid half-hour break for lunch, and two 15-minute breaks. At 2:30 p.m., he begins the almost 90-minute trek home.
He’s grateful for the work, he said. He’s grateful that Microsoft is paving the way for other companies to make life a little better for contract workers.
“My real hope is to get another job,” Boucher said. “Every temporary worker is dreaming about something else.”
The time off divide
Total paid time off, including vacation, sick leave and federal holidays, given by Microsoft and Lionbridge,
compared with U.S. labor law requirements: