RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – IBM workers led by those based in Italy are due to launch their “virtual” strike at any time, but union officials are warning Big Blue workers to be careful about how, when and where they use their avatars as pickets.

Picketing IBM properties in the 3D online world of Second Life should be done on employees’ own time – and on their own computers.

Otherwise, IBM workers could face some real consequences.

“Be aware that IBM US employees participating in this virtual strike must do so on their own time using their own personal pc,” says a warning on an AFL-CIO posting about the strike.

Lee Conrad, an executive with the Alliance@IBM union in New York, echoed that warning.

“The Alliance is participating but we are telling our members and employees to join the strike online from home during non-work time with their own PCs,” Conrad told The Skinny.

The virtual strike in Second Life is the idea of some Big Blue workers in Italy. RSU, the Italian union representing 9,000 IBM-ers in Italy, is upset over a proposed pay cut.

The job action in Second Life is believed to be the first strike in the growing online community.

“The virtual strike is still being planned,” Conrad said Monday. “Won’t know exact time until right at the moment it starts.”

“We hear that there are employees from 18 countries already signed up to participate,” he added. It’s purpose is to put pressure on IBM to recognize the demands of the IBM Italy union. We will put pressure on IBM in both the virtual world and the real world.”

In an e-mail distributed by the AFL/CIO, the large U.S. organization called for its members to participate. They can download a “strike kit” from Union Network International, which has been helping RSU.

“The IBM workers will go on strike in Second Life this month,” the AFL/CIO said. “UNI and the Communications Workers of America, through its Alliance@IBM, are asking all union supporters to join the Italian workers online by joining Second Life and downloading a strike kit.”

RSU has wanted to keep the specific launch time for the strike secret so as to have some surprise in launching the virtual action, but it should start between the 25th and 30th.

Stay tuned.