Frustrated IBM workers in Italy joined by others from around the world are planning what is being called the first virtual “strike” in the 3D online world of Second Life starting Tuesday.

By targeting IBM in Second Life, the union is already generating press coverage around the world. IBM has been among the largest and best known supporters of Second Life, having invested in virtual real estate since December of 2006 and establishing hundreds of “properties,” or sites.

Italian workers are angry over a proposed new contract that they say will cost them some $1,400 a year. They had been seeking a raise. IBM employs some 9,000 people in Italy.

The action will feature sign-carrying avatars created by IBM (NYSE: ) workers with the help of the union known as RSU (Rappresentenza Sindacale Unitaria). UNI (Uni Network International) has been helping RSU and IBM workers organize the event with online tutorials on how to create avatars, or characters, in Second Life.

The protest will be “the first virtual strike ever in Second Life,” according to UNI.

RSU began issuing “strike kits” on September 12. UNI, an international organization based in Switzerland, works with some 900 groups representing more than 15 million workers.

Alliance@IBM, which represents IBM workers seeking to form a large-scale union in the United States, has urged its members to support the Italian virtual walkout.

Unions from around the world recently gathered in Paris to discuss how they could better collaborate. Alliance@IBM has been extremely aggressive in protesting outsourcing and “offshoring” of U.S.-based jobs.

IBM employs more than 11,000 people around the Research Triangle – its largest congregation of workers.

On its Web site, UNI cautioned IBM workers and supporters that the virtual action is breaking new ground. It also called for “peaceful” demonstrations.

“Since it’s brand new for all of us, we are checking legal aspects of course,” the union said. “It will be a peaceful demonstration, but we just want to make sure we don’t play against the rules.”

UNI added that a list of “islands” where avatars will be sent to protest is being created. Demonstrations are also scheduled to last 12 hours “so we can cover all time zones,” UNI said.

The union is also seeking support from “experienced, friendly” Second Life groups to join the strike.

“We’ve met with many of the future strikers and it’s been a fantastic human experience so far. So many people have expressed their solidarity to IBM workers in Italy. They will all do everything they can to join and get our message across to IBM management.”

How IBM will react to avatars showing up as protestors on some of its Second World properties is not clear at this point.

“Yes we are planning to be present on the IBM sim,” a UNI spokesperson told the blog New World Notes. “But if they throw us out we have other alternatives for our virtual strike!”

IBM has been mum on the planned action other than a blog entry.

“The strict approach would be to exercise full property rights and eject or ban anyone that is not considered beneficial to supporting your business,” Jaymin Carthage, an IBM blogger, wrote about the pending strike. “Your sim costs you money and you expect to get a return on it.”

However, Carthage did not take a stand on the issues raised by the workers.

Among the striking avatars will be Barillo Kohnke, which is the avatar name for Italian worker David Barillari. He told the Australian newspaper Sydney Morning Herald that workers would split into “cells” that had different objectives. While the protests will be peaceful, Barillari added that he expects strikers to face repercussions.

"We are expecting some very bad reaction from IBM," Barillari told the Herald in an interview conducted in Second Life. "I’m sure they will try to do something to limit our demonstration."

UNI has told the IBM workers that this virtual strike is breaking new ground.

“Since it’s brand new for all of us, we are checking legal aspects of course,” the union said on its Web site. “It will be a peaceful demonstration, but we just want to make sure we don’t play against the rules.”