The Revenge of the Nerds
by Michael Blanding

Forget about tattooed, black-masked anarchists. Today’s anti-globalization protester is just as likely to be the middle-aged, middle-class computer engineer next door.

John Napier doesn't look like the type of guy you would expect to see at a street protest. His oversized glasses and scrawny frame call to mind not a political agitator, but Rick Moranis circa Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Yet the 53-year-old technical engineer was one of the more vocal protesters when he stood outside the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City with other unemployed information technology--or IT--professionals. Sporting thinning hair and paunches under short-sleeved polo shirts, the dozen or so men were picketing a conference for executives that focused on sending jobs overseas. Among the slogans on the signs they held: "Will code for food."

"It was just hot-and-cold-running Mercedeses pulling up to the building for three days, 12 hours a day," Napier remembers. As the suits got out of their air-conditioned cars, some of them heckled the protesters, telling them to go get jobs. Napier and the others yelled back: "We can't find one! That's why we're here!"

Napier's political education had lapsed after the Vietnam War, during which he was a foot soldier in demonstrations against the draft. Since then, he says, he has lived a "vanilla life" in Boston. At the Waldorf protest, he became alarmed when a photographer lurched out of a crowd of demonstrators in front of him, snapped his picture, then faded back into a stream of pedestrians. Napier thought it might have been a hired thug from one of the computer companies he had harassed, and he worried about his apartment back in Massachusetts. But when he told one of the more experienced protesters, she brushed it off, saying the photographer was probably working for the FBI. "They said, 'Oh, yeah, shit, this thing happens all the time,'" says Napier. "I thought, Phew, just the FBI."

Whether or not it really was the government who took his picture, Napier is tickled to think he might be seen as a threat. "They were too dumb to see this was all gray-haired and balding middle-aged engineers," he says. "They just looked at our political agenda and said, 'Get a man out there. This is the anti-globalization crew.'"

Since protesters shut down the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle four and a half years ago, popular conceptions of anti-globalization protesters have included burly Teamsters, dreadlocked environmentalists, and black-masked anarchists poised to throw rocks through the windows of the nearest Niketown or Starbucks. But today such protesters are just as likely to be computer programmers from the Route 128 belt. In this election year, international trade has appeared on the political radar for the first time since NAFTA, and the words "offshoring" and "outsourcing" are on the lips of radio talk show hosts across the country. At issue are 600,000 jobs expected to be lost nationwide by 2005 and 3.3 million expected to be outsourced by 2015.

While economists say giving up American jobs now is good for the economy in the long run, new or reborn activists like Napier aren't willing to wait for the trickle-down to get to them. In the tech-centric Boston area, these workers are increasingly joining national groups with names like TechsUnite, Rescue American Jobs, and the Organization for the Rights of American Workers (TORAW), the Connecticut-based group that led the Waldorf protest. But if they are going to be effective in keeping their jobs from straying overseas, they're going to have to learn how to organize.

The five computer engineers have barely sat down in a small conference room in the Westin Hotel in Waltham before a suspicious hotel employee pokes her head through the door. "Hi," she says. "I don't have anyone in this room tonight. I just want to know who you are." Nervous glances pass among the people gathered around a horseshoe-shaped table with goblets of plastic-wrapped candies spread about. In better times, these engineers would be sitting in the light of an overhead projector, learning about database administration or firewall construction. Instead, as one explains to the woman, they just came here for a few minutes to talk, retreating from the loud mechanical player piano in the lobby. "Don't worry," another adds apologetically, "we won't be here for long."

The irony is palpable. Through the windows pulse the bright lights of Route 128, the carotid artery of the Massachusetts Miracle, which transformed the focus of the local economy from manufacturing to high technology when companies like Digital, Data General, Wang, and Honeywell made the region second only to Silicon Valley in technical innovation. Each of these engineers in his or her own way benefited from this technology revolution. Now they seem uncomfortable and out of place among the office parks where it flourished. Several don't want their last names published for fear of being blacklisted. One, a straight-haired woman, doesn't want her name used at all.

Napier's story is typical of the bunch. "In my thirties, I spent all of my money to get into the hot new field of computers," he says. After spending eight years at MIT and Boston University, he earned a master's degree in electrical engineering and worked for almost two decades in software design at Raytheon and other, smaller companies. The tech bubble burst while he was working at the Hopkinton-based EMC Corporation. In May of 2001, he learned he was being laid off at about the same time his project was being shifted to a new production center in India. Over the course of two years, EMC laid off several thousand employees while expanding its Indian operation to 100 workers. "They are playing the two sides off the middle," Napier says. "When they lay off thousands of Americans, that's the 'economic cycle,' but when they hire in India the next year, that's 'opportunity.' The U.S. population is paying the price."

At the same time, grouse Napier and the other unemployed engineers, companies have been importing workers under "guest worker" visas whose definition was expanded during the late-'90s tech boom. A systems administrator also named John, who declines to give his last name, says he twice trained Indian computer programmers who replaced him--once when he was working for the state Department of Correction and another time when he was an employee at Partners HealthCare. In both cases, he was almost immediately laid off. Since then, he's sent out some 15,000 resumes, John says--most by e-mail--and made "several thousand" phone calls. Though he has finally found a temporary job at lower pay than before, he says he's suffered from the strain of his unstable work situation. "There's a fear factor," John says. "I never thought I'd be in the position where I was worried about just paying the bills. You go to parties for the holidays or whatever and friends and family say, 'Well, how's it going?' and I say, 'Oh, I'm still job hunting,' and there's a sudden silence." He sighs. "My girlfriend says I hang out with too many unemployed computer engineers."

Hard data on the number of jobs lost to offshoring and guest workers is hard to come by. The list of companies engaging in the practice includes many based in Massachusetts, such as Fidelity, John Hancock, and Keane, as well as larger companies with a strong local presence such as Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, and the newly arrived Bank of America.

But some say the outsourcing backlash is unfounded. "It's a global economy, and pockets of valuable talent exist all over the world," EMC spokesman Greg Eden says. "If you're going to compete on a global stage, you've got to take advantage of that." While his company did lay off 800 workers in Massachusetts in 2002, says Eden, it hired back almost 300 last year. He won't say how many of these hires were foreign workers on visas.

Regardless of how many jobs are affected, the bigger question is how this will affect the Massachusetts economy in the long run. "I think there's going to be a transition time, and this will probably last for many years, if not a decade or two, in which it might be a negative for workers in the U.S.," says Alan Clayton-Matthews, an economist at UMass Boston and co-editor of Massachusetts Benchmarks. But once the economies of developing countries start catching up to ours, he says, the increased demand for products should lift all boats, which could particularly benefit the Massachusetts labor force. "The U.S. is likely to have a comparative advantage in jobs that involve a highly educated workforce," says Clayton-Matthews. "And Massachusetts is at the pinnacle of that, so we could do very well in the future."

In other words, goes the free-trade line, the juiciest jobs will stay here. "While certain jobs will go offshore, the overall demand will stoke new innovations and new technologies of the kind that Massachusetts has always excelled at," says Tom Hubbard, a vice president of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-governmental agency that reports on the state economy. Hubbard cites biotechnology and medical equipment as two fields in which Boston companies are breaking new ground. "The problem," he says, "is that while the economy will move on to the next level of innovation, that doesn't mean that the [same] people who lost their jobs will take the new jobs that are created."

That leaves the workers in the Westin Hotel conference room struggling to find their place. "There's nothing in the computer engineering space that I can't do--from building chips to building systems," says Dave, a software-development consultant. "Pretty much anything with electrons flowing through it, I can do." After his latest consulting company failed to get funding, Dave turned to selling cars. "I couldn't stand it," he says, "but what the hell? What are you qualified for?"

Meanwhile, George, a 48-year-old engineer who was also laid off from a locally based computer company, dutifully went to the state's Division of Employment and Training in Boston only to be told that the state wasn't training anyone for high-tech jobs. "They didn't come up with anything other than nursing. And I think I'm a little bit too old to go into the nursing field."

While economists predict that more high-tech jobs will become available as the economy improves, no one is sure how outsourcing will cut into the number created. "That's the big monster question," says Hubbard. "Is this a long-term trend?"

A certain anti-authoritarian streak has always run through the IT community, which loves to hate Microsoft and envisions a Linux-based world of open-source software free of copyrights. On the other hand, that very model--thousands of computer programmers sitting in their own dark basements e-mailing new code back and forth--is antithetical to organizing a movement. White-collar workers "are all bred to be individualists," acknowledges Napier. "Every one of us is trained to love our own ideas. In Iraq, 80 percent of the people toodle into the mosque every Friday, and if the big Shiite kahuna says, 'We don't want Americans here,' the Americans wouldn't be in Iraq today. But where can you get the 30,000 unemployed IT people in Massachusetts to all show up--except maybe the unemployment office?"

The question of how to mobilize such an independent crew has preoccupied the protesters for more than a year. In Connecticut, TORAW founder John Bauman once led fellow telephone company employees in a cleanup of the Appalachian Trail. He applied some of the lessons he learned then after he was laid off from a consulting job in 2002. With a flurry of phone calls and e-mails, he organized friends and associates into small groups that gave public presentations and lobbied local legislators, several of whom brought the issue up in Congress. Last year, Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd introduced bills to close loopholes in the visa laws (still pending) and prevent the government from hiring contractors who outsource jobs (since passed by the Senate). "He told us that it was directly a result of our actions," says Bauman. "It was a lesson in grassroots democracy."

In the Boston area, on the other hand, it seems as if there are more tech-worker organizations than people in them. A demonstration organized by local TechsUnite coordinator Rick Roberts drew only 10 people, who held up signs and handed out fliers to passersby in the rain outside the Westin Copley Place. A partner in a small software development firm that has refused to hire foreign guest workers on visas, Roberts says he had never been an activist before and had to learn about city permitting laws for demonstrations. "Right now, we're trying to focus on getting the word out," he explains. "I think a lot of people aren't aware of how many jobs are going overseas." At the demonstration, Roberts met Napier and another former EMC employee, Gina Minks. Both Napier and Minks have added their own energy by lobbying the media and, in Minks's case, running a weblog on outsourcing issues.

After growing up poor in Florida, Minks earned a master's degree in computer engineering at Florida State, hoping to break out of a cycle of working several jobs to support her two children. "I'm the classic single mom," she says. "The only thing I ever wanted was a 9-to-5 job." Unlike some other engineers, however, she engaged in activism in college. Florida State didn't have an active student group for American Indians, so Minks, who is part Cherokee, worked to revive it. When she was laid off from a training job at EMC only 11 months after being recruited to Massachusetts, it seemed natural to her to transform her anger into action. "I did everything they told me to do. I'm not on drugs. I don't drink. I take care of my kids. I raised myself out of poverty. For what? Why did I put myself $20,000 in debt?"

Minks hounded Senator Ted Kennedy's staff, eventually winning a meeting with an aide along with Napier, Malloy, Roberts, and several others. They told their stories and presented him with an information packet. "He was shocked with some of the things we told him," Minks says. So much, in fact, that Kennedy will be proposing changes in corporate tax laws to make outsourcing less profitable. Minks is also heartened by Governor Mitt Romney's proposal to offer tax incentives to companies that keep jobs in the state. But without guarantees that those jobs will go to Americans, not foreign guest workers, she's afraid the governor will get credit for solving the problem without actually doing it.

Her next target: Massachusetts Senator and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who has blasted President George W. Bush for supporting offshoring but has yet to sign on to any of the bills in Congress meant to stop or slow it. Meanwhile, Minks is hosting meetings at her home in Milford, trying to turn a ragtag band of computer geeks into a political force. "I'm used to doing the strategy thing, but we're all so analytical by trade, it gets off topic very quickly. It's very difficult to bring it back and say, 'This is what we're doing.'" On the other hand, she says, seeing her colleagues turn into activists has been inspiring. "You don't see a lot of middle-class white guys doing any kind of protesting down South," she says. "It's given me hope."