A virtual strike against IBM drew picketers from approximately 30 countries to Big Blue sites in Second Life on Thursday.

The strike is believed to be the first for the virtual 3D world that has more than 9 million members and includes commercial properties, or islands, operated by thousands of companies. IBM has a significant presence in Second Life, including commercial ventures with Circuit City and Sears.

Organized by the union representing 9,000 IBM workers in Italy, avatars representing real people carried signs and instant messaged each other at strike sites. According to the action organizers, seven IBM sites, including IBM Italia, were targeted.

“Even in virtual worlds, we will ask for real rights,” read one sign.

“We are ready for virtual worlds. We are ready for justice, too,” stated another.

The IBM employees were protesting a potential $1,400 annual pay cut.

At one time, nearly 50 avatars representing real people picketed at IBM Italia.

The workers’ union is Rappresentanze Sindicali Unitarie, a trade union widely known by its acronym, RSU. RSU drew support from several international unions, including Union Network International, which offered IBM workers online “strike kits.” The kits include T-shirts for avatars and instructions on how to use Second Life as a protesting venue. Among advocates for the strike is Alliance@IBM, the union seeking to represent IBM workers based in the U.S.

“It was quite an experience,” Lee Conrad, an executive with Alliance@IBM, told WRAL Local Tech Wire.

According to UNI, more than 1,800 people participated in the strike.
“IBM did not officially react to our protest so far,” UNI said on its Web site. “However, they did shut down parts of their Business Centre to visitors (or really, protesters).”

Avatars did intrude on an IBM meeting taking place in Second Life, UNI added.

“A number of participants managed to crash an IBM staff meeting during the afternoon – where they were immediately asked to leave and to ‘protest outside’,” UNI said. “Instead, they demanded to speak to Management. But the staff meeting, which seemed to be about the new IBM website functionalities, was called to an end.

Jody Smith, founder of a company in Apex that focuses entirely on Second Life, calls the strike a precedent-setting event.

“They are there because they are angry,” Smith said of the protesters. “Second Life is about building communities, and these people are sharing in an action that wouldn’t have been possible before."

An MBA graduate of Duke, Smith worked for three years as a financial analyst. He stressed that the people participating in the strike had to do much more than just click a mouse.

“Even in the virtual world, it takes effort,” Smith said.