In the 1990s, dot-com celebrations were happening everywhere. From Silicon Valley to Boston, from Austin to Seattle, the geeky Lambda Lambda Lambda frat brothers from Revenge of the Nerds were suddenly big men on campus, starting computer companies, swimming in cash–partying, as Prince might say, like it was 1999 (it actually was 1999). As the kegger raged upstairs, though, a group of Microsoft employees at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, called the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers–WashTech for short–was shrieking from the basement about an impending economic massacre. Sadly, very few were listening. Now the party’s over–and a white-collar uprising is on.
If you haven’t heard much about this, don’t blame yourself. We live in a media environment that trumpets the price of the Apple iPhone as big financial news and adultery as major political news. But the fight WashTech is contributing to is hugely important for two reasons–one is obvious, but the other is rarely discussed.
First, the obvious: the white-collar sector is growing fast. Between 1977 and 2004 the number of professional and high-skilled US workers more than doubled. The government predicts that roughly one-third of all employment growth between now and 2012 will be in the white-collar sector. In contemporary America, though, sheer size is no longer the primary determinant of change. The better gauge is demographics, which brings us to the second reason this white-collar uprising is so significant: if politics and culture still react to the mass public at all, they react almost exclusively to the upper middle professional class. That’s pretty awful, but it’s absolutely true. Business misbehavior, for example, was rarely a Congressional focus when CEOs were cutting blue-collar wages. But when Enron’s collapse hit the stock market and undermined the retirement savings of the upper middle class, lawmakers raced to pass corporate accountability legislation. Housing affordability and predatory lending received little attention in Washington when only the working poor couldn’t meet their mortgage payments. But now that defaults are convulsing Wall Street, the problem is deemed a crisis. So this white-collar uprising is not just about professional office workers and their fight. It is also about whether an uprising can flourish in the very demographic the Establishment most responds to–a demographic that also happens to be skeptical of collective action.
How did WashTech begin, and what is its role in the larger uprising roiling America? Not too long ago, on a typically gray Seattle winter day, the group’s president, Marcus Courtney, sat down with me at a Starbucks in the University District to tell the story. In 1993 Courtney was one of many starry-eyed college grads who migrated to Seattle just as the tech boom was moving to warp speed. He found one of those Great Jobs at Microsoft in technical support–only his job turned out to be not so great. He was one of roughly 6,000 employees known as “permatemps,” a classification that allows a company to pay a temp-agency middleman for full-time, indefinite labor. The designation, which covers roughly a quarter of Microsoft workers in the Seattle area, means employers don’t have to pay regular benefits.