Labor -- and action -- in technology
IT guild: A once and future union?
(IDG) -- In the 1930s, muscle-bound steel workers served as poster boys for organizations that eventually would merge and be folded into the AFL-CIO -- the American Federation of Labor, in the 1950s a rising power as the country's umbrella union organization.
Workers were in the driver's seat of the American economy, they called the shots. Today, it's the often less-than-strapping IT worker who has slipped behind the wheel. Can brainy software engineers replace brawny men of yore as spokesmodels for labor unions and exploited workers in the new economy? The answer is yes. And no.
In a poll taken in February by TechRepublic.com, a Web site for IT professionals, 45 percent of responding IT workers said they're interested in joining a labor union for high-tech employees.
Others have more than a passing interest. They're joining existing unions. One of them is the 740,000-member Communications Workers of America (CWA), based in Washington, and the 75,000-member International Federation for Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), with offices in Silver Spring, Maryland.
And some are forming their own unions, among them the 250-member Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech). That one has organized programmers at Microsoft and helped bring to resolution a lawsuit against the company involving alleged misclassification of long-term contract workers as temps.
Surprised by all this interest in unions? You're not alone.
The union label
Randy Wiley, CIO of the state of Arizona Department of Water Resources, speaks for 60 percent of CIOs, according to a CIO survey (for the survey's full results see the KnowPulse Poll, January 2001, listed in the IDG.net Infocenter here).
"I can't figure out why anyone in IT would want to go union," says Wiley. "We're at the top of the scale as far as salary goes. It's not like someone's cracking a whip over you. Overall, IT people have it pretty good. I know I've always felt like I have."
Wiley and some of his CIO colleagues say they're perplexed by media attention to the issue of labor unions in tech. So far, organizing efforts have been limited enough to create little inconvenience in corporate offices.
But common themes run through these fledgling unionization efforts, themes some may find worth listening to. They often address poorly crafted corporate policies that don't take into account the special needs of IT workers (training, for example). In fact, the high-tech union members gathering so far look less like the locals in a mob movie and more like professional guilders interested in promoting their crafts.
As CIOs struggle to attract, recruit, retain and reward top IT workers, they might find that unions and their contracts actually provide them with extra impact in the fight against stodgy corporate policies to obtain additional training and benefits for their staffs. And some CIOs may find that unions can boost productivity. Researchers at Tufts University and the New York Federal Reserve found that unionized enterprises tended to adopt formal quality programs and that reported productivity levels rose 16 percent in such organizations.
"The fact of the matter is that workers can form unions," says Rock Regan, CIO of the state of Connecticut, who confronted the state's labor union when he was trying to outsource its IT department (see "Connecticut Antes Up," April 1, 1999). "Whether you want it to happen or not, it can happen. I wouldn't define it as a threat. It's just another challenge," he says.
The term union, with the images it conjures of manual laborers and picket lines, poses the biggest problem to CIOs who are confronting unions either in the news or in their companies, and to traditional labor groups trying to recruit IT workers. These days, however, the term is being redefined to accommodate new organizations forming, particularly in the IT sector, like WashTech.
Candice Johnson, spokeswoman for the CWA, like other labor leaders recognizes that the type of union that works for construction workers may not necessarily work for IT workers. "You can't apply a cookie-cutter approach," she says.
"We have to reinvent what it means to be a union," says Mike Blain, president and cofounder of WashTech. "A union that focuses on things like seniority and wages without listening to what [IT] workers want is going to have difficulty [organizing them]. A lot of unions or locals don't understand that traditional bread-and-butter issues are not necessarily at the forefront of most IT workers' minds."
The issues that are on their minds:
Establishing standards for software development
Forced overtime and the H1-B visa
Many of these issues work to the advantage of the employer just as much as they benefit the employee. For instance, some companies are reluctant to spend money on training, especially in times of economic distress. Blain says companies fearing that their workers will leave with their newfound skills for a higher-paying job elsewhere should be relieved to know that unions want to provide classes for their members.
WashTech opened a computer lab north of Seattle in January 2001, a place in which members can take discounted courses in Web development, computer repair and become Cisco-certified network associates. Health-care and retirement funds would work the same way, says Blain, flowing through the union instead of the employer.
Another issue that's advantageous to both companies and workers is standards for application development. Product and project cycles have gone from two-to-three years to two-to-three months, says Lessard. "There are no processes. There's no R&D. Everything is about the bottom line. It's a sweatshop. You're not making good software. You're doing spaghetti code. Unless some type of professional organization is formed, we're going to see a lot more [interest in unions] going forward," he says.
The Programmers' Guild was formed in 1998 to promote the programming profession, although it doesn't offer any formal training or benefits. With nearly 1,000 members, this virtual professional organization addresses the need for standards along with training, certification and H1-B visas that are for skilled foreign workers, says John Miano, co-founder of the guild.
Miano says The Programmers' Guild is not a union because it has no contracts with employers nor does it engage in collective bargaining. WashTech doesn't negotiate contracts or collective bargaining agreements either (at least not at this point, notes Blain), but calls itself a union nonetheless.
Some observers say negotiating with human resources on salaries, benefits, training and work-environment issues might be easier when employees' collective voices are leveraged by union membership.
"For me, the union is a very powerful lobby in state government," says Connecticut's Regan. "They have a constituency over the legislature so they can further a lot of my issues."
There, the union championed a training fund for IT workers that Regan wouldn't have otherwise been able to obtain. Regan is also leveraging unionized employees' desire for greater professional mobility in order to design a new job classification system in line with the labor contract. The new system will allow state IT employees to move from one function, such as development, to another, such as support, more easily if they want the opportunity to try something new.
"A lot of things that you want, companies want. You want a productive employee, a trained employee. You want to retain employees. Unions want that too," says Regan.
He says it was difficult to work with the union and establish mutual trust after it defeated his outsourcing effort. He also says that what he did wrong the first time was trying to work around the union and not communicating his plans with members.
Now he meets with the Connecticut State Employees' Association (CSEA), the union that represents 4,200 professional and technical workers in the state, every six to eight weeks to discuss staffing and other issues. "When I sit down with them and talk about investing some of our money in training, I have to come through with that. I'm going to tell them something that I can do and get their support on it," he says.
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CIO's January 2001 KnowPulse poll
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