Mike Blaine and Marcus Courtney of WashTech fight for temps’ rights.

After testifying at a State Senate hearing about the issues facing high-tech workers, the gang from the Washington Alliance for Technology Workers gathered at the Mason Jar, a restaurant in Olympia whose menu changes by the day and whose list of homemade pies requires two blackboards. The conversation was so peppered with computer slang and acronyms that at times it sounded like Esperanto. Two programmers compared their Dungeons & Dragons-style wedding rings. When I asked a software engineer for his wife's phone number, he turned on the Palm Pilot resting next to his bowl of soup and, his hands clumsy over its tiny keys, punched in an e-mail message to me and his wife, who was sitting on his other side.

The scene was a long way from labor union culture, with its satin jackets, beer barbecues, and American flags, but the people I was sitting with belong to the first and only branch of the Communications Workers of America composed of temp workers in the high-tech industry.

Why is this significant? Well, two of the most important developments in our country's economy are the shift from manufacturing jobs to jobs based in information, communications, and entertainment, and the shift toward temp work and subcontracted labor. Organized labor hasn't even remotely kept up with these trends; it's still set up to organize textile plants. That's one big reason why labor's ranks and influence have decreased so dramatically in the last 20 years, and it's also a big reason why--chances are--you don't have health insurance.

High-tech industries have used temporary contracted labor more extensively and aggressively than most industries. They don't just contract out low-skill jobs like receptionists or janitors, but have temps do the meat-and-potatoes work of the company. High-tech temp workers typically make more money than permanent employees, but receive no benefits, no paid vacations, and no sick leave or stock options, and they are typically required to work marathon hours. They are officially employed by a temp agency, which takes a cut of their pay. A third of Microsoft's workforce--about 6,000 people--is composed of "temps" who often work in the same position for years at a stretch. Sixty-seven percent of the area's software companies employ a large number of temps; the Washington Software Alliance predicts the number will rise to 90 percent. If "temps" find out about a new job opportunity through a friend and get hired independently, they still have to sign up with an agency and have their pay funneled through it.

Much has been made of this new model of employment: the exotic telecommuting, the whirlwind moves from job to job, the new skills and training picked up at each assignment, the jackpot wages. The image of an independent contractor with no affiliation to any particular firm fits in perfectly with the libertarian, individualistic ideology which has characterized techno culture. And plenty of workers like the arrangement, as the Wall Street Journal has been breathlessly reporting for quite some time. Almost any career/lifestyle feature written about these new work arrangements would have you believe that every temp in the computer industry is a new mom covered by her husband's insurance looking for sporadic part-time work with high up-front pay.

But not all high-tech temps are happy as clams. Lisa Lewis is a single mom who can't afford her temp agency's health insurance premium of $458 a month. So Lewis buys insurance for her daughter and goes uncovered. "The argument you hear when mentioning a lack of benefits is, 'Just get a permanent job.' In four years, I've tried more times than I can count to apply for permanent jobs."

Microsoft permatemp Anne Newman would like to have a child, but her temp agency doesn't offer maternity leave. And in the year she's worked at Microsoft, she hasn't been able to take five consecutive days off. She says she's not a rarity: "This is prevalent enough that my agency offers 'contingent workers' the option to take a week of 'bonus' pay instead of vacation."

Many Microsoft employees simply dislike the unstable, convoluted employment arrangements they're stuck in. They resent the lack of job security and their second-class status. One woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, worked six years as a Microsoft content provider. She was recently let go without notice or any clear explanation, which is completely kosher in a temp contract. She hates that temp agencies have to serve as a middleman between her and potential employers, and doesn't think they do a very good job. "I have great experience and references and a set of skills in high demand. But I'm floating around without a job and I have to depend on this agency. I'm very scared right now. If I didn't have a load of savings from some 100-hour-a-week stints at Microsoft, I'd be dead." Ms. Content Provider desperately hopes she doesn't have to work at Microsoft again. "I don't want to be part of that two-tier system as a manager or a temp. Temps are treated like lawn furniture to be allocated among offices.... Basically I think it's ridiculous that someone like me, who managed the production of a best-selling product--in one work group, for four years--is called a temp."

She's not the only one who thinks its ridiculous. A recent court ruling found that permatemps are employees of Microsoft in every way but name, and are entitled to benefits and stock options. The case is currently in appeals to determine how large a group of employees is entitled to the benefits.

Microsoft seems to think that while the case is being decided they'll be able to convince everyone that temps are really temps. So, as of this summer, any temp who works at Microsoft for more than a year has to be "laid off" for a minimum of 30 days. And since the courts say that the temps' real employer is determined by who awards raises, Microsoft has shifted that responsibility to the temp agencies. Microsoft managers are now forbidden from formally discussing job performance with the temps. They write an evaluation of the employee, which at some agencies the employee isn't allowed to read. Then the agency reads the evaluation and decides whether or not to award a raise. While the lawsuits were pending, Microsoft also tried to insert a line into temps' contracts requiring them to forego any benefits that might be awarded to them. (A federal judge immediately slammed this maneuver, calling it "outrageously arrogant.")

Last week, the State Senate introduced a series of bills, which are virtually guaranteed to pass, that State Senator Darlene Fairley says "are directed against Microsoft." The bills would provide unpaid family and medical leave to temps who work for more than a year, and prevent companies from denying benefits to temps who work for more than a year full-time, or using contractual language that prevents temps from receiving benefits.

Also introduced was legislation to fund a $130,000 study of the impact of this contingent workforce on Washington state. Are state governments picking up the tab for health benefits and lost retirement packages that employers used to pay? Do people choose temporary work arrangements, or are they forced into them? And who should be accountable for paying taxes on temp workers? Earlier in the year, neither Microsoft nor the temp agencies claimed the temps, cheating Redmond out of about $260,000 in annual city revenue, according to The Seattle Times.

Though the increased use of temps is a national phenomenon, the Washington state study will be the first in the country. Why is Washington a pioneer on this?

Fairley says it's "because of Microsoft. The incredibly high profile of the company in our area has inadvertently brought the situation of temp workers to our attention."

Microsoft's skimping on employee benefits in the face of its incredible profits is also what motivated former permatemp Marcus Courtney to leave the company and start WashTech. There is no organization comparable to WashTech in the nation, although informal groups have made unsuccessful efforts in Rhode Island and California. Since WashTech started last year, 1,000 high-tech workers asked to be on the mailing list, and 100 joined the union as dues-paying members of the Communications Workers of America.

Before the organization started, high-tech workers were amazingly disorganized. For instance, earlier in the year Microsoft lobbied Congress to grant more visas to foreign high-tech workers, citing a labor shortage. Bringing more high-tech workers in would, of course, drive high-tech workers' wages down--but not a single worker testified. Nor did anyone question how there could be a labor shortage if such a large part of the workforce is composed of temps.

Similarly, when Microsoft lobbied successfully for a ruling that exempts high-tech companies from paying overtime to temps and contract workers, the workers only got in on the debate at the last minute.

"There's this huge group of workers with absolutely no voice," says Courtney. "They don't identify with any company or with each other, so their needs don't get heard. This is particularly bad because Microsoft is very good at making sure their [own] interests are represented."