DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Phil Palios grew up in Redmond watching Microsoft grow. It’s where he always wanted to work. He was glad to have the opportunity to get a foot in the door as a contractor. But he became disillusioned with the size of the company today and the way it treats its workers, particularly those who are hired through third-party employment agencies. When his employer, Volt, passed on the news Friday that all contractors would have to take a 10 percent pay cut — for him it would mean going from $34.25 an hour to about $30.83 — Palios had had enough.
“I had no intention of accepting a 10 percent pay cut,” Palios said in an interview Monday afternoon at Victor’s Coffee in downtown Redmond, before attending a rare, albeit small, labor protest at Microsoft that evening. “So I viewed it as, I am not going to accept this pay cut. They might let me go sooner. I might get black-listed or something, but I wanted to at least act and make my voice heard and try to unite the workers and have them realize that if they form an alliance — it doesn’t have to be a union, if they just work together — they can have a lot more power and open up communication channels with the company.”
Palios, 23, never expected to lead a labor movement — and it remains to be seen how far he’ll get with this one.
While growing up in Redmond, Palios said, Microsoft has been part of his life almost as long as he can remember. He recalls his parents telling him the company’s expansion announcements would be a big deal for their community. He was inspired by Bill Gates. “Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to work at Microsoft and that’s kind of been driving me,” he said.
He took programming classes at Redmond High School, where he participated in Running Start, Washington’s program that allows high-school students to take college classes. He was a member of Lake Washington Online, a network including lots of students from the Lake Washington School District, many of whom went on to jobs at Microsoft, he said. Palios graduated in 2003.
His first contract at Microsoft began in September 2006. “I started being a contractor because I wanted to get a foot in the door at Microsoft. I wanted to be an FTE and find out what it would take, and what I could do.” He was confident in his skills, but felt he had to prove himself because he hasn’t earned a bachelor’s degree.
The contract work arrangement at Microsoft didn’t sit well with him from the start. The contract companies and Microsoft had too much power over the temporary workers, he said. “I kind of felt something wasn’t right about this,” Palios said.
His thoughts of organizing contract workers started with a friend who was involved with organized labor at UPS.
After Volt, his contract agency, told him via e-mail on Friday that he would need to accept a 10 percent pay cut to continue working, he decided to act.
He sent an Outlook meeting request on Monday to some 2,000 contract employees dealing with the same cuts. It asks workers to join him for a “peaceful protest” every weekday evening between 6 and 8 p.m. until Friday, March 13, in front of a prominent Microsoft sign at the busy intersection of Northeast 40th Street and 156th Avenue Northeast on the corner of the company’s headquarters campus.The meeting request was forwarded around the company.
Palios said he understands the business logic behind Microsoft’s cost-cutting measures, which have included layoffs, construction delays and wage freezes for full-time employees. He wasn’t surprised when the contractors were hit with the pay cut.
“I just think that, at the same time — and maybe it’s just a young stupid kid talking — they’re still making $4 billion in profit. It’s not like they can’t afford to keep paying us what they agreed to pay us in our original contracts,” he said.
He also questioned the move from the perspective of Microsoft’s long-term strategy.
“You get what you pay for,” Palios said. “… That cut, I think,will ultimately degrade the quality of work Microsoft gets out of their employees, the quality of people Microsoft gets, especially long-term.”
Palios realizes by speaking out, not to mention organizing a protest against Microsoft using the company’s own internal e-mail system, he’s risking his job, and in a tough economy. But again, he’s sure of himself.
“Personally I have a lot of self-confidence in my ability to work in the software industry in a variety of different development, test and configuration management jobs,” he said.
So what does he hope will come of this effort?
“If I can just do one thing, I want to open communication among contract workers at Microsoft in Redmond. There’s no real way to talk and we need, ultimately, I would like them to form an alliance, a union, something to be able to negotiate for their rights as employees at Microsoft.”
And if he does lose his job, Palios said he’s willing to devote his newly freed-up schedule to the effort.