Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of WRAL Tech Wire and business editor of

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – In its 100th year, will IBM executives finally have to deal with a union on a global basis? Could be.

A loose network of groups who have sought to organize Big Blue workers in their own countries or regions are formally banding together come May.

The IBM Global Union Alliance is taking shape as IBM celebrates its centennial year, and one of the key players is Alliance@IBM CWA Local 1701. Based in New York, Alliance@IBM has been unsuccessful in recruiting thousands of IBM employees to its ranks. But the group, led by a longtime and retired IBMer Lee Conrad, refuses to give up.

As IBM reported record revenues and profits while growing its headcount (mostly in India and China), layoffs in North America and Europe continue to occur – a few here, a few there. The various unions publicize those job cuts and offshoring moves as often as they get hands on the data – generally leaked from IBM employees. But the unions have been unsuccessful in convincing legions of Big Blue workers to sign on.

Perhaps times are changing.

In an announcement issued Tuesday, the fledgling group said it would organize “under the umbrella of the International Metalworkers Federation and Union Network International.”

“As IBM has set itself up as a truly global company, trade unions also need to set up a truly global alliance cooperating to the maximum extent for the benefit of their members and IBM employees,” the Global Union Alliance said in a statement. “This meeting creates an IMF/UNI Global Union Alliance at IBM of trade unions with members working for companies owned by IBM or companies in which IBM has a significant interest.”

One of the problems facing unions trying to organize IBMers is the fact that Big Blue workers live in fear of being fired if they become known as union members.

Here’s an example: Alliance@IBM has tried in vain to recruit and maintain a lead representative at its RTP campus where some 10,000 people work. If and when one is secured, that person has been in the past frightened almost beyond measure to talked with the media – even on an “unidentified” basis.

While a dismissal might not come as a direct result of union-related actions, IBMers know quite well how the company’s internal evaluations and reviews can be used to force people out – or put them on a dead-end career track.

IBMers sometime back resorted to using avatars to stage a “virtual strike” in cyberspace.

In 2009, they even organized a “silent strike.”

The backers of this new international effort point out that unions have formed for IBM employees in Bulgaria, Chile and Argentina.

North American and European workers have been especially affected by IBM’s movement of jobs to lower-cost centers such as India, China and Brazil.

The group spelled out three objectives for the global organization:

• “To engage IBM in dialog at global level.
• “To pursue agreements with IBM at global level to improve working conditions of IBM employees worldwide.
• “To raise levels of trade union membership at IBM.”

It also spelled out what could be considered the skeleton of a manifesto::

“The partners of the Alliance will work together with the aim of protecting and furthering the interests of IBM employees throughout the world.

“The partners will take concrete action to enlarge the network by improving contacts with unions in countries where employees are unionized and make every effort to organize unorganized plants/locations.”

Will this new organization develop the muscle it needs to bring IBM to the bargaining table?

Well, at least they are trying.

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