West Virginia IT Pros Mount First US Resistance to Outsourcing

09/17/2010 12:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From the hills and hollows of West Virginia, IT professionals are resolving to do what American IT professionals have never done before - stop the outsourcing of their jobs, the insanity of cost over runs for botched services, and the destruction of their identity as American professionals.

Unlike assembly-line workers who find the gates to the factory shuttered one day, IT professionals are first lured into cooperating with a shadowy internal "chop-shop." The chop shop's mission is to analyze, dissect, disassemble and consolidate computing power and support.

These same IT professionals, who have a sophisticated understanding of how the business works along with subject matter expertise, are expected to provide detailed reports to the chop-shop which will be included in a bill of particulars and handed over to potential outsourcers. Only then can vendors come up with a price to outsource.

Once the outsourcing begins, so do the firings, the cost overruns, and loss of expertise.

So when Ron Bolin, the new West Virginia State Director of Information Services, a former IBM employee and lawyer specializing in IT outsourcing contracts, assembled 35 programmers to inquire, "What does everybody think about outsourcing?" they thought they were dead-men walking.

"You couldn't draw this picture any better if you used Crayolas," said Jennifer Ayers, an applications developer programmer who walked out of the meeting determined to fight. While other programmers were willing to "play-nice," she and a handful of programmers at the state of West Virginia, all non-union workers who once considered unions irrelevant, formed a team that day that would draw a line in the sand against a national trend. Twenty years in the making, this trend is played out over and over: Permanent top dollar, white-collar jobs convert to dead-end perma-temp jobs which eventually sail abroad.

First, this team alerted every IT pro they knew. Robert Bryant, a systems programmer with strong pro-union sentiments, replied, "You're gonna be fired anyway. You might as will fight for your job--and our future as Americans. This is the only chance we have." Then he contacted the union that just 4 years ago organized the state of West Virginia's workers as an open shop.

That union was United Electrical Workers (UE), the union made famous made by their successful 24/7 management take over of Republic Windows, pushing bank creditors away and saving a plant that employed 240 workers while their white-collar professionals cowered and bailed as Bank of America called in the loan.

"It's about the right to have a job."

John Thompson, an organizer for West Virginia's Public Workers UE Local 170, called a fact-finding meeting. A liberal arts major with only manufacturing experience, Thompson and the IT pros quickly spun out a bold "to do" list - fight this politically in the media, at the state capitols steps and in the courts. Thompson explained, "Americans are deeply resentful as they watch thousands of 'jobs of the future' shipped off shore. In this sense, this is first and foremost a political fight - it's about the right to have a job."

An aggressive, preemptive strike against any outsourcing plans was devised. IT pros activated their broad networks, committing to reach all 600 IT workers across the state. While many IT professionals still wouldn't speak out, support to quash any outsourcing plans was spreading covertly. It even reached into low-level management.

Carolyn Saul, a systems programmer for the West Virginia Office of Technology discovered the fight back on the nightly news. She wrote to a colleague whose job was outsourced by her current boss, Kyle Schafer, in his previous position, "I have joined a union; something I never believed in. Because I assumed if you did your job you'd never have to worry about losing your job."

Two weeks later, she was a headliner at a rally of 75 IT professionals on the Capitol Complex. She explained why she spoke out publicly. "My mind kept repeating the famous poem displayed at the Holocaust Museum, "First they came for...". I spoke for those who can't yet."

While favorable local coverage expanded, the union moved to lobby state legislators - with IT professionals eloquently arguing their case.

On September 5, 2010, the union filed a lawsuit against West Virginia's Office of Technology and Kyle Shafer. The suit alleges Shafer has yet to submit a four-year plan that was due in June 2007 and failed to submit biannual reports of his activities. Both are required by law. In addition, UE is requesting the court prevent the Office of Technology from soliciting bids for outsourcing.

IT professionals showed another display of strength on Tuesday, September 14th, by speaking to a joint House and Senate subcommittee, packing the upstairs gallery, and gluing themselves to their desks to hear the live audio of the hearing.

Legislators then moved to audit the Office of Technology and examine all documents related to potential outsourcing plans. As House Delegate Randy Swartzmiller put it, "...we want to make sure that we know what's going to happen with the employees that are down there working now and are doing a tremendous job."

"That's when the congratulatory text messages from other IT pros started flooding my cell phone," said Ayers. "Finally, we're first in something!"

To an IT pro like me, that's almost Heaven.