IBM layoffs hit RTP workers

In this Tuesday, July 16, 2013, file photo, an IBM logo is displayed in Berlin, Vt. The company reports quarterly earnings on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014.
In this Tuesday, July 16, 2013, file photo, an IBM logo is displayed in Berlin, Vt. The company reports quarterly earnings on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. AP

IBM began cutting jobs Thursday at its Research Triangle Park campus and across the U.S.

Alliance@IBM, which has been trying to organize IBM workers for years, reported Thursday that employees in RTP and nine other sites nationwide were informed by their managers that they are being let go.

In RTP, employees in the global business services and systems and technology group units were laid off, Lee Conrad, national coordinator at Alliance, said in an interview.

But the magnitude of the layoffs in RTP and elsewhere is unclear, and Conrad complained that IBM has adopted a new policy that obfuscates how many jobs are being eliminated.

“They’re trying to stop any kind of information on these job cuts ... getting out,” Conrad said.

The layoffs have been anticipated since last month, when IBM reported it would take a $1 billion “workforce rebalancing charge” in the first quarter. That’s how much the company allocated for last year’s layoffs, which led to an estimated 3,000 workers in North America losing their jobs.

Based on the size of the charge, analysts and Conrad have estimated that IBM could cut up to 15,000 jobs worldwide.

Job cuts were initiated at IBM’s overseas office two weeks ago.

Asked to comment on the layoffs, IBM spokesman Doug Shelton wrote in an email message: “As reported in our recent earnings briefing, IBM continues to rebalance its workforce to meet the changing requirements of its clients, and to pioneer new, high value segments of the IT industry.”

Shelton noted that the company is investing in – and expanding – businesses where it sees an opportunity to grow. That includes committing $1 billion to a new business unit centered around its Watson supercomputer and $1.2 billion devoted to its cloud business.

“This also creates new job opportunities at IBM,” Shelton said. “At any given time, IBM has more than 3,000 job openings in these and other growth areas in the U.S.”

IBM doesn’t discuss how many employees it has at specific sites or how many employees lose their jobs when a round of layoffs is initiated.

The company reported in a recent filing that, at the end of 2013, it had 431,212 workers worldwide – down seven-tenths of a percent from a year earlier. That marked the first time in a decade that its workforce shrunk, according to Bloomberg News.

Data withheld

Conrad estimates that the company’s Triangle workforce has declined from 11,000 in 2006 to between 7,200 and 7,600 today.

In the past, when IBM laid off an employee, the terminated worker would receive a packet of documents that, in addition to outlining the worker’s severance package and health and retirement benefits, would list the age, title and number of employees in the worker’s business unit that were losing their jobs. That’s what Alliance relied on to determine how many jobs were cut.

But Conrad complained that information is missing in the latest packets.

“We’re outraged,” Conrad said, adding that IBM’s move could thwart Alliance’s ability to determine how many workers are laid off.

Shelton, the IBM spokesman, confirmed that the pertinent data is not in this year’s packets.

“IBM is addressing concerns raised by employees that the age/title information IBM previously provided infringed on employee privacy,” he said. “Based on this privacy concern, IBM has removed that data from packets.”

Conrad, in an email, labeled the company’s position “absurd.”

In the past, “we were given this information freely by employees with the sole purpose of breaking the secrecy of IBM job cuts,” Conrad said. “This is just another attempt by IBM to hide the number of cuts taking place and the continued destruction of the IBM employee population in the U.S. Federal and State governments should look into this and demand transparency or tell IBM no more tax breaks.”

Lenovo expansion

About 7,500 IBM employees are expected to shift to Lenovo when the No. 1 PC maker completes its $2.3 billion acquisition of a line of servers from IBM. Lenovo, which has about 2,500 employees in North Carolina, including 2,200 at a headquarters in Morrisville, has said its presence in the state will nearly double as a result of the acquisition.

It’s unclear what impact the server sale, which was announced after IBM unveiled the workforce rebalancing charge, might have on the scope of the company’s job cuts, said Conrad.

Nor is IBM shedding much light on the issue.

“Those are independent business decisions,” IBM spokesman Jeffrey Cross wrote in an email. “Unrelated events, in other words.”