San Jose, CA—The AFL-CIO has yet to make inroads in the one industry it needs most if it is to succeed in the new economy—high-tech.

Unions say they face two problems. First, many high-tech workers are classified as “independent contractors,” which means they have no legal right to organize into a negotiating union. Second, many high-tech employees—well paid programmers, engineers, and technicians—have identified with their employers so much that a union seemed unnecessary.

Until now.

The downturn has shattered the image of high-tech employment for many workers, and this has opened the door to organizing. In fact, some high-tech workers are not waiting for the unions, but have started to organize on their own.

A group called Immigrants Support Network (ISN), made up mostly of workers who hold H1-B visas (issued only to those with high-level technical skills) is making a stand against unfair immigration and employment conditions.

In the process, it may be creating a model for organizing in the new economy.

Like labor unions during this country’s period of industrialization, ISN has grown organically as workers found strength in expressing demands collectively rather than individually. U.S. unions were not responsible for the first effective labor organizing in high-tech, but from a multi-ethnic group of immigrant workers who, ironically, the unions never wanted here in the first place.

“Our issue is very clear,” says Murali Devarkonda, ISN organizer and H1-B visa holder. “We want our freedom.” It may seem strange to hear highly-paid, stock- optioned, white-collar employees describe their situation in terms that would seem more likely to come from Watsonville farmworkers or Detroit autoworkers, but they share one frustration—the H1-B visa gave the employer control over employee’s immigration status.

The quick rise in the tech industry and its quicker fall have made this problem worse for the 400,000 H1-B visa holders, half of whom are from India.

As the economy heated up in the late 1990s, more H1-B’s—seeing technology gold mines but unable to leave their jobs—decided to apply for green cards so that they could stay in the U.S.

“We were watching opportunities in the tech revolution go by us,” says Devarakonda. “In this economy, it is death to be stuck in old technology.”

Things got worse when the economy plummeted in 2001, shedding some 300,000 tech jobs, and H1-B’s discovered their right to stay in the U.S. disappeared when their sponsoring employer laid them off. Some returned to their home countries, but many are sticking it out.

One 28-year-old H1-B visa holder from Holland says that after losing his job, he tried to collect unemployment, but failed. He is afraid of identifying himself because he plans to find another job, not covered by his visa, which opens him up to deportation.

“They said that to collect unemployment, I’d have to be able to look for immediate work,” he says. “Since an employer would have to wait six months for a new visa to arrive, I was ineligible.”

This young man searches tech employment web sites every day, but is discouraged by the proliferation of postings that read, “This Employer Will Not Sponsor.”

Devarakonda explains that ISN was formed to help such situations. ISN began organizing when H1-B holders saw their future being debated without their presence.

“There was high-tech industry on one side lobbying for higher numbers of temporary work visas, and unions arguing that H1-B’s were taking jobs from U.S. workers. We had no one representing us.”

ISN has become a formidable lobbying force. Communicating mainly through cyberspace, it now boasts 15,000 members across the U.S. This year, it pushed for passage of a bill that extends H1-B’s beyond the usual six-year limit for those in the process of applying for a green card.

ISN members also backed a change that allows employers to expedite the sponsorship process to only 15 days by paying a small fee. This is a lifesaver, since many employers argued they could not afford to hire H1-B’s due to the six months it could take for the paper work to go through.

Marion Steeg, staff director of the South Bay Labor Council in Silicon Valley, sympathizes with the plight of H1-Bs, but does not see the organizing potential. “They are victims, like the braceros were, and organizing is not part of their thinking since it is not a real legal option.” This is why, she adds, the unions are focusing on training and building career ladders for workers in the high-tech sector.

But it is the law itself that ISN is organizing against. Its next goal is abolition of the country quota on Green Cards, which now limits any country to only seven percent of the total.

Devarakonda says, “We want to get rid of it because it is the same strategy people in power always use to hold others down. Divide and rule, like the British did in India.”

Raj Jayadev is editor of

www.siliconvalleydebug.com, the voice of the young and temporary.

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