Tech Workers Need More Than Sentimental Reasons To Unionize

from the workers-of-the-world,-compete! dept

Tony Long argues at Wired.com that it's time tech workers unionized. He uses the typical rhetoric about jobs being outsourced, wages stagnating, corporate profits soaring, and today's workers owing a debt to the labor movement, which won such benefits as weekends and vacations. Though organized labor has at times been an important and positive force, other sources of union power don't make sense today. Historically, a powerful union tool has been the ability to exclude non-members from the workforce. This is why unions are so vehemently against "right to work" laws, or these days, outsourcing labor overseas. Closely related to this is opposition to technologies that reduce the need for human employees, like in the example of the plumbers that were against waterless urinals. Though such a mentality is completely anathema to the tech world, it's not surprising to see it at a column called The Luddite -- the fear that technology would take jobs away from humans was the same fear that the original Luddites had. Even more important, perhaps, is that the delineation between labor and management -- central to the union ethos -- doesn't hold at most technology companies. Often, company equity is part of an employee's compensation package; so even if their wages seem to stagnate due to competition from Indian programmers, they benefit when their company saves money. Unions make sense when there's an extremely skewed balance of power between the employee and the employer; a coal mining town in West Virgina with just one employer would be a classic example. GM's monopoly on hiring in Flint Michigan was another one (though we'll ignore the thorny issue of why they chose to close that plant). But the tech workforce is mobile, it can go where the jobs are. It's never been easier for a few workers to start their own company. Companies invest huge amounts in recruitement and battling over the best workers. Indeed, the balance of power has shifted dramatically. Some argue that the decline of the labor force is due to unions having failed to adapt to the times, but that's like saying that typewriters failed to adapt. There isn't much need in the tech world for artifacts from the past.


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  1.  
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    dorpus, May 11th, 2006 @ 4:49pm

    Unless

    Behind the smoke screen of "libertarian", "Luddite", "stock options", "globally competitive", etc., the fact remains that managers use this as an excuse to make millions while giving workers low salaries. How come CEO salaries aren't globally competitive?

     

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  2.  
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    Howard Lee Harkness, May 11th, 2006 @ 5:37pm

    The purpose of a union...

    Regardless of whether unions ever had any net beneficial effect (I personally don't think so), they certainly don't now. The primary task of union leadership is to keep the union rank-and-file UNhappy. That's because happy workers don't want a union. I've personally been coerced into joining a union, and it wasn't a pleasant experience, and I did not get anything tangible out of my membership. I've also been on the other side -- I'd personally much rather be a union buster than a union member. Whatever labor problems there are (and there are many), unionization is not the answer.

    All of that is pretty much moot in the technical world. The government has been pretty much bought and paid for by the folks interested in abusing the H1-b system (and I have seen some blatant and illegal abuse of that system up close and personal). Because of the government-encouraged abuse of H1-b's, programming is going to be mostly a minimum-wage McJob by the end of this decade, and any serious attempt at unionization will probably only hasten the day that all programming is done by H1-b's or offshore. Which is which I am busy building a business teaching music and selling instruments, which I hope will support me before that happens. The best part of my new career pursuit is that I have found that I really enjoy teaching young people how to play the violin (and viola); much more than I do putting up with the pervasive management attitude that programmers are fungible.

    I still occasionally teach programming courses, and I advise all of my students to find something else to do for a living besides just writing software. I will probably write software for the rest of my life, but only for myself and my own business(es).

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 11th, 2006 @ 5:45pm

    What drugs are Tony taking?

    Anyone else agree that Tony Long is an idiot?

     

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  4.  
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    Jean, May 11th, 2006 @ 6:02pm

    the artifice of 'high tech'

    We might get some perspective on this issue by looking at a concrete example of what happens when tech workers fail to organize (to use the term unionize is perhaps archaic) to protect themselves as a class. In British Columbia (where I work in high tech), legislation was introduced several years ago that exempts high technology workers from provisions in our labour law (notably, overtime pay, statutory holiday pay, breaks, and maximum work hours in a week - read about it here). And certainly, this benefits companies' bottom lines. However, provisioning high tech workers with stock options or some other consideration (e.g., higher salaries) in exchange for degraded working conditions is not written into the legislation (though this is what we're supposed to infer is going on).

    Further, why should 'high technology' companies (really - that could be construed as anything from electric cars to web development to pharmaceuticals, couldn't it?) be treated differently than other industries?

     

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  5.  
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    Joe Smith, May 11th, 2006 @ 7:26pm

    Re: the artifice of 'high tech'

    If you took the time to go and research the legislation you are complaining about you would know that professionals generally are excluded from the operation of the Employment Standards law in British Columbia. You are just being treated like other professionals who are assumed to be able to look after themselves.

    http://www.qp.gov.bc.ca/statreg/reg/E/EmployStand/396_95.htm#section31

    The Joe who wrote the article is wrong about why unionization happened in Flint Michigan. Unions have only been really successful when they have been able to capture or create a monopoly. The UAW was able to create a monopoly for the supply of cars to Americans - the monopoly was a UAW monopoly who were a single supplier of labor for cars for Americans.

    Imports have broken that monopoly and the legacy costs of the union agreements which were negotiated when the companies and the workers asssumed the monopoly would last are going to bankrupt Ford and GM..

     

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  6.  
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    techwiz18, May 11th, 2006 @ 7:35pm

    Re: The purpose of a union...

    I disagree with you that programming in general will be a low paid occupation anytime soon for several reasons. The notion that outsourcing software development labor results in large savings is a common misconception. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics "jobs in software engineering are less prone to being sent abroad compared with jobs in other computer specialties, because the occupation requires innovation and intense research and development." Moreover, this same source projects that software engineering will be one of the fastest growing occupations in the next ten years. Also, many employers are discovering that quality is worth paying for. Finding employees who are able to write clean, efficient code are a rare commodity. Software development is as much a science as it is an art and talented programmers will continue to enjoy large salaries until programming is no longer necessary. Many, including myself, consider software development be on a continuum (i.e. there are many levels of skill). The lowest skilled, generally those with the least amount of education and experience, will perform the unpleasant grunt work for less pay -- much like the technician who works below the engineer.

     

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  7.  
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    Jean, May 11th, 2006 @ 8:44pm

    Re: Re: the artifice of 'high tech'

    By your logic, Joe, it would then come down to a question of whether "high technology" workers are already considered by the law to be "professionals" (as are lawyers, phsyicians, dentists, and the like), or whether they are considered labourers. If you were correct in assuming that they were already considered as such, then the amendments introduced in 2003 would not have been necessary.

    Anyway, even a cursory reading of B.C.'s Employment Standards Regulation reveals that high technology professionals are not exempted by virtue of S.31 (which, oddly, you cited in support of your argument [?]). They are exempted from certain portions of the Act by virtue of S.37.8.

    Additionally (since you were going there), the exclusions do not attach to whether they are considered "professionals" or "workers" but rather to whether the employee is deemed to be working for a company that is defined as a "high technology company". If more than 50% of the employees at a company meet the rather loose standard of what constitutes a "high technology professional", then all of the employees at that company are subject to the exemptions (with only slightly less painful conditions attaching to administrative and support staff working there). The amendments explicitly provide the same exemptions for "sales and marketing" staff as they do for developers [37.8(1)(d)].

     

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    Concerned Citizen, May 11th, 2006 @ 9:08pm

    Monopoly???

    Hey Joe, you speak of monopolies that are going to bankrupt Ford due to unions but imports have broken this as you mentioned. All fine and dandy but cost have still skyrocketed, wages are down, a certification holds very little water when it comes to salary with human resources departments. Unions hold their purpose and have done well for many people. Can tech unionize, maybe but doubtful. I have been witness to many entry level techs being mistreated and working long hours and even having to fight for comp time. This has made me a more considerate manager and I make sure to treat my staff right because I have been there. However to say imports have broken a monopoly (UAW) is short sighted. Prices of goods are still high, petrol is high, and salaries don’t budge. A good union holds it purpose. This economy has run amuck. If you flood the market with low cost products that are imported and jobs continue to leave and salaries remain stagnant more people become poor. If I knew of a union that would help I would join one in an instant but unfortunately I don’t see it happening. The middle class will disappear, the chasm between rich and poor will grow, hopefully not in my lifetime, and if so there is always Costa Rica (as long as I can get a dsl or cable line).

     

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  9.  
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    Joe Smith, May 11th, 2006 @ 11:50pm

    Re: Monopoly???

    Concerned Citizen

    The American economy faces challenges but it has faced challenges for a long time. Trying to protect an isolated sector, like automobile manufacturing, just winds up costing every other American more.

    There are studies done on the costs of protectionism which generally come out and say that it would be cheaper to pay the effected workers to stay home than to protect their jobs. Here is an interesting link to the federal reserve saying, as an example, that it is costing over $1 Million dollars per year per job to protect jobs in the softwood lumber industry.

    http://www.dallasfed.org/fed/annual/2002/ar02f.html

     

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  10.  
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    discojohnson, May 12th, 2006 @ 7:07am

    Re: Re: Monopoly???

    good essay

     

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  11.  
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    Me, May 12th, 2006 @ 7:13am

    I don't think you know that every company has tech support, not just Technology companies. Yes employees of Technology companies do get some "Stock Options", but most techies don't work for these companies, they work for the companies that purchase such technology. These workers rarely see a penny the company makes. Unionizing these workers sounds like a good plan in my opinion. But who am I, only a low level tech support agent in a small company that doesn't see a penny of what my company makes.

     

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  12.  
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    Linguistical, May 12th, 2006 @ 8:52am

    The Bottom Line

    Unionization isn't the answer, but let's at least be clear on what the question is. Are tech workers being exploited? For a good percentage, the answer is yes. The labor laws in California were changed in 2001 for workers in the software industry to specify that anyone making under $41/hr could not be considered professional and must be paid overtime. This was a necessary change to the law because many developers, tech writers, and support personnel were being forced to work an exorbitant amount of hours without additional compensation. This has spawned several class action lawsuits against companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and CSC. Some of which have already been settled out of court and have caused companies to reclassify employees as hourly to avoid the problem in the future.

    Now, why is it unfair to not pay these employees overtime when professionals and management are not paid overtime? It's a simple question of how much control over the employee's work does the employee have? Management and professionals generally are tasked with making strategic decisions that affect the way work is done. Non-professional employees cannot directly affect the hours that they are required to work because even if they perform above the expected norms for their position, there will always be more work that needs to be accomplished usually because of the decisions of management. So, if an employee is required to work more than 40 hours a day and more than 5 days a week and has no control over that, he must be compensated.

    I've been on both sides of the issue, so I know there is a lot of gray area in this. I've managed a development team and have had to require overtime and weekends without compensation because deadlines that were based on their estimates of time were in jeopardy. But, I did give them comp time after the project was completed because I knew that it was also my fault for not seeing that the estimates were unrealistic. I've also been a support analyst and been required to work "on call" without compensation because the company I worked for sold our support as 24 x 7, but only staffed for 12 x 5.

    The bottom line is that people should be paid for the time they work, especially if they have little to no control over whether they have to work overtime. It is not fair nor should it be legal to not pay someone overtime just because they are paid a salary or because they work in a certain industry. If a business is run so poorly that they can't afford to pay people adequately for the time they work then that business should fail. It should not be allowed to continue on making a few people a lot of money while exploiting the people that make it possible for them to make that money. That's why sweatshops are illegal in this country.

    For those of you that are afraid of losing an exploitative job to outsourcing or the company going out of business because they have to pay fairly I can only say, "Grow a backbone!" The only way companies get away with doing these things is because people are afraid to stand up for what's right. Yeah, you may lose your job, but there are plenty more out there. If that's too scary for you, then go ahead and follow the herd even if you know the slaughterhouse is just over the hill. Personally, I would much rather die on my feet than live on my knees.

     

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  13.  
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    Don Marti, May 12th, 2006 @ 9:41am

    Corporate governance

    The CEO is accountable to the Board, which is elected by the Stockholders. And the employees are nice middle-class investor types, so they ARE the Stockholders.

    All nifty and fair, right?

    Wrong. For tax purposes, you, the stockholder, own your pieces of companies through some kind of retirement plan, and the fund managers just vote with the Board instead of passing decisions through to you.

    So you own the company but it's not run for you.

    Where is the retirement plan that will let its customers vote their consciences, or vote down CEO-overpaying board members?

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2006 @ 9:48am

    The bottom line is that engineers and techies aren't very good at representing themselves in business, and as such they get used and abused in the corporate world.

    Programming has the feel of a blue collar job these days, and you can feel it in the way people treat you in the company - almost like an unskilled laborer. Most sales idiots that i know make much more than I do now - and they didn't bust their ass for four years in college trying to understand calculus or EMag theory.

    The joke is, the politcians are trying to figure out why science and math related graduation numbers are declining for Americans and all the jobs are going overseas. Big mystersy? How about - I'm not going to let my kid bust his ass to be undercompensated in comparison?

    Some form of a union could be the answer here, although I am generally opposed to unions.

     

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  15.  
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    jdw242, May 12th, 2006 @ 11:54am

    ...have skills, will travel...

    "But the tech workforce is mobile, it can go where the jobs are."

    Having worked for a recruiting firm for a number of years, it is safe for me to say that anyone can move to where the jobs are, but they use little things like a house, or land, or family to justify the need to stay and miss out on the growth potential and money that they would gain by the relo.

    I've never seen any reason for tech workers to unionize, mostly because I was there in 1999 when they were whispering about it in Michigan, and we had a good belly laugh each time we quit a job and went to another for a 10% bump.

    Unions? Intelligence need not apply.

     

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  16.  
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    Colin LeMahieu, May 12th, 2006 @ 5:29pm

    Sad.

    There already exists a title for a grouping of people, banding together for a common purpose and to make more money, it's not called a union, it's called a corporation.

    A union is nothing more than an uneducated, parasitic corporation that feeds off of other corporations.

    Look at the various socialist websites on the internet and see how they back the reasons for their beliefs, references to a single book written close to a century ago.

    Look at various libertarian websites on the internet and see where their research is. Economists, professors, historical statistics, empirical studies.

    Tell me which group of these people has a better grasp of reality and what is better for everyone on a whole.

     

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  17.  
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    Ninja, May 18th, 2006 @ 6:45am

    CEO salaries *are* globally competitive. By making the big bucks, they also take on responsibility for the company's every success and failure and must compete for their jobs against *other* prospective CEOs the board of directors / shareholds might decide to pick instead should the company do poorly under them.

    Besides, a CEOs salary often includes stock options, meaning their pay is directly proportional to how well the company does under them. Poorly-performing execs automatically lower their own salary when stock prices fall under their bumbling.

     

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  18.  
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    David Garner, May 31st, 2006 @ 1:38pm

    Unions are simply democracies in miniature

    A union is mrerely an ad hoc, democratic organization, and while no democracy is perfect, it is always true that members of a democracy are at an advantage over members of a feudal organization, which essentially what a business is: owners are lords, managers are overseers, and workers are serfs.

    As our society becomes less and less democratic, the need for the democratic protections that unions offer for high tech workers and almost all other workers, becomes greater and greater.

    As a programmer with 9 years of experience who has survived this long recession we're in, I can attest to the dramatic need to belong to a union. To my fellow high-tech workers I would like to say: don't count your chickens before they're hatched: our society is moving towards a mega-billionaires-subsistence worker paradigm -- don't fool yourselves into thinking that your cubicle and high 5 figure salary will last forever. We must unionize now while we still can!

     

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  19.  
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    elmlish, Jun 13th, 2006 @ 8:41pm

    Re: ...have skills, will travel...

    The work force is not always as mobile as one might think. Non-compete agreements, one of the most hideous things attached to many contracts in my industry will often force one to stay where they might otherwise have left long ago.

     

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  20.  
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    Frederick David, Jul 13th, 2006 @ 5:11pm

    Re: What drugs are Tony taking?

    What I would agree to is that any tech worker who doesn't join a union is an idiot. The way you stop h1b visa exploitation is by forming a union that will lobby congress on your behalf.

     

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  21.  
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    Frederick David, Jul 13th, 2006 @ 5:12pm

    Re: What drugs are Tony taking?

    What I would agree to is that any tech worker who doesn't join a union is an idiot. The way you stop h1b visa exploitation is by forming a union that will lobby congress on your behalf.

     

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