Q&A: WashTech’s Marcus Courtney on H-1B visas, displaced workers

He says high-tech workers are hurt by a lack of unions

Labor unions don’t have much of a presence in the high-tech industry, something that hurts its white-collar workers, who are losing jobs to offshore outsourcing, according to Marcus Courtney, president of the Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech. For instance, manufacturing workers -- with far more union representation than tech workers -- get extended unemployment benefits, health insurance help and other benefits when they lose their jobs because of globalization. Programmers and other tech workers do not. In an interview with Computerworld, Courtney talked about some of the issues affecting technology workers, including the ongoing debate in Congress over immigration and the H-1B visa cap.

It’s unclear whether Congress will increase the current H-1B cap. What’s your outlook? If an immigration reform [bill] is to pass Congress, my expectation is they will most likely have some kind of provision in that bill to expand the H-1B visa cap. The ideal outcome is that we can begin generating enough grass-roots activities among people in the tech community to get in touch with their member of Congress to let them know that they oppose any H-1B visa increase as part of the immigration reform. That is not the bill to be addressing the issues surrounding the H-1B visa.

The H-1B program is not about immigration; it’s a guest worker program. It’s dealing with technology and the immigration brought about between Mexico and the United States and not between the United States and Southeast Asia, where predominately the majority of H-1B visa holders come from.

Why is increasing the H-1B cap a bad thing? The H-1B visa is a specialty visa designed to fill spot market labor shortages for employers in very niche skills in the computer industry. It’s a little bit broader than just technology, but predominantly it’s the technology industry that uses this visa. When you look at the demand for high-tech workers in the country, there are more workers seeking jobs than jobs available. The 65,000 should be adequate enough for employers to fill any spot market labor shortages.

What happens if the cap is raised? It becomes a U.S. worker replacement program.

What happens to displaced technology workers? It increases the competition for those workers for any jobs that are available in the market. It drives down wages.

H-1B aside, isn’t the real threat to employment security the offshore outsourcing of technology jobs? The real threat to employment security is the companies that are relentlessly trying to increase their profits and boost their bottom lines at the expense of American jobs. Our frustration is that employers never have to show any evidence that they really can’t find these [American] employees. When you actually look at the employment figures in the industry ... it’s hard to imagine that there is a serious crisis facing high-tech employers.

What’s the trend in terms of union activism among tech workers? The level of engagement peaked at the 2004 election. With this [immigration] debate, we’re seeing an awakening among tech workers about the value and need of representation.

What do you think should be done to help workers who have lost their jobs because of offshore outsourcing? One thing we are trying to do is get legislation passed around Trade Adjustment Assistance. This has been a big issue for white-collar workers. If they lose their jobs to offshore outsourcing, the government has said that if they don’t make goods or material they could not get access [to] TAA, which will give them benefits for retraining, health care, re-employment and moving expenses. They are very significant benefits. We’ve been fierce advocates for that. If you are a manufacturing employee laid off because of foreign trade and qualify for TAA benefits, it means the government is going to pay for you to get retrained, [your] health care coverage [is] paid for. Currently, unemployment lasts for six months. But you can get unemployment for an additional six months or possibly for a total of up to 18 months of benefits [under TAA].

Why this disparity? When [Congress] passed the Trade Adjustment Assistance act, it only believed that manufacturing workers would ever be impacted. Manufacturing workers are more organized. It’s not a coincidence that a heavily unionized industry – such as manufacturing – was able to get government programs for workers. Technology workers are just beginning to get organized.

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