John Sweeney, elected in October 1995 to head the nationwide AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization for trade unions, is bringing new officials into the AFL-CIO's Washington headquarters who are more aggressive and who better understand the information technology industry, she said.
To curb free-trade agreements, which are strongly backed by many information technology companies such as IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., Sweeney is trying to forge closer links between United States and foreign unions.
So far, the unions have "no [role in contracting] that I've been able to detect," said Bruce Hahn, Washington lobbyist for the Computing Technology Industry Association, based in Lombard, Ill. The association's member companies build components and maintain computer systems.
And information industry executives were skeptical about the unions' future prospects. "The desire of employees to unionize ... is not strong because we spread the wealth," said Mike Maibach, chief Washington lobbyist for Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif. Also, "our management is enlightened and our employees are empowered," he said.
So far, the unions have played little or no role in congressional debates over online commerce or encryption. For example, unions have not intervened in the debate over the draft Internet Tax Freedom Act, which would allow many online companies to escape paying taxes to state and local government, which employ many union members.
Also, neither Dean nor Thea Lee, assistant director of trade policy at the Washington-based AFL-CIO, knew of the impending report on electronic commerce that is being prepared by White House adviser Ira Magaziner.
The report, due to be approved by President Bill Clinton July 1, calls for free trade in electronic commerce, and urges reliance on industry self-regulation, rather than government regulation.
However, the AFL-CIO has slowed efforts in Congress to extend free-trade deals, including a pending free-trade deal with South American countries. Also, the Washington-based American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees persuaded President Clinton to halt a $1 billion contract in Texas that would have outsourced much of the state's welfare system and the union's Texas membership to Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., or Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Plano, Texas.
The unions "put a foot through this procurement," said Thomas Hewitt, president of Federal Sources Inc. of McLean, Va. "They put a great deal of fear in the minds of all government executives [because] they are going to have a battle if anything is moved from public sector to industry," said Hewitt.
However, the overall weakness of unions has helped information technology companies press for tax breaks and exploit temporary workers, said Dean.
To strengthen unions' clout, Dean formed a San Jose-based group called Working Partnerships USA, which is trying to unionize local information technology workers and gather statistics on wages, benefits and voting patterns.
"The whole goal of the research is to blow a big gaping wound through the myth that the new economy is the answer ... and the myth the Silicon Valley is future-perfect," she said.