IT Union Head Opposes H-1B Increase, Seeks Aid for Workers Hit by Offshoring

Labor unions don't have much of a presence in the high-tech industry. Marcus Courtney, president of the Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, said that hurts white-collar IT workers in the U.S., who are losing jobs to offshore outsourcing. In an interview with Computerworld, Courtney talked about issues affecting IT employees, including outsourcing and the ongoing debate in Congress over immigration and the H-1B visa cap.

Do you think that Congress will increase the number of visas available to foreigners under the H-1B program? 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. That is not the bill to be addressing the issue. The H-1B program is not about immigration; it's a guest-worker program.

Why are you opposed to increasing the H-1B cap on visas? The H-1B visa is a specialty visa designed to fill spot market labor shortages for employers [looking for] very niche skills in the computer industry. When you look at the demand for high-tech workers in the country, there are more workers seeking jobs than jobs available. The [current cap of] 65,000 should be adequate to fill spot labor shortages.

What will happen to displaced technology workers if the cap is raised? It increases the competition [among] those workers for any jobs that are available in the market. It drives down wages.

How much of a threat is offshore outsourcing to U.S. technology workers? 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 [U.S.] 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 state of union activism among high-tech workers today? 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 can be done to help workers who have lost jobs to 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.

Why don't technical workers get the same access to the benefits as manufacturing workers? 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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