Tech & Work

Can techies be unionized?

Efforts to unionize techies have made headlines recently. But the IT world is vastly different than the industries normally represented by unions. In this week's Tech Watch, Bob Weinstein suggests that unions and IT are not a good combination.


Can techies be unionized? You bet. But do they want to be? Larry Cohen, executive vice president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which is part of the AFL-CIO, says they do. His mission is to build what he calls a “new union model” for the New Economy, and he’s already achieved some success.

The CWA is trying to organize hundreds of customer service workers at Amazon.com and is also involved in a unionization vote at Etown.com, a San Francisco dot com that sells electronic products. Similar efforts to organize workers at IBM began after Big Blue threatened to reduce pensions. Although CWA has not won the right to bargain for IBM workers, Cohen says the unionization effort was instrumental in getting management to reverse much of the pension overhaul.

And, CWA’s Seattle’s chapter—the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WATW)—has achieved some success in recruiting 250 techies from one of the country’s technology meccas.

When most people think of a union, the image that comes to mind is that of pre-World War II union organizers storming industrial towns trying to improve conditions for workers exploited by ruthless industrialists. Barbara Judd, a WATW union organizer, quickly dismissed this image. “Old school unions were about handling grievances through bargaining units,” Judd explains. “We’re not structured that way. Currently, we have no bargaining units.”

Judd says the WATW’s goal is to sway public opinion around critical issues concerning techies, such as benefits, salary, and seniority. “When you work for a temp firm, you don’t have the same kind of benefits that company employees get,” she explains. The WATW insists that many techies with seniority are often passed over for raises and promotions. And it’s a myth that they’re all well paid.

It sounds convincing, but Michael Barabander, a labor attorney and partner at Grotta, Glassman & Hoffman (a labor and employment law firm in Roseland, NJ), and Rick Storms, a partner at Gray Cary (a law firm representing technology companies in San Diego), say most techies don’t want to be part of a union. Management, predictably, is not thrilled with the notion either. “The last thing the technology industry needs is unionization,” Barabander asserts. “Unions are all about regulating how a company does business. Their goal is to get workers into collective bargaining agreements after they win representational rights. Ultimately, unions reduce management’s flexibility to act in a competitive environment and move at ‘E-speed.’”
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Despite the CWA’s claims that the majority of techies, especially low- and mid-range workers, could profit from union membership, Barabander and Storms insist they don’t need unions negotiating on their behalf. “Techies, especially those with an entrepreneurial bent, do far better negotiating directly with management than by having a union representative speak for them,” Barabander says.

Storms says salary and security are not pressing issues with most techies. He agrees that most tech workers are not making superstar salaries, yet the average hourly pay is far better than that of most industries. And security is not a concern for the thousands of techies who enjoy the nomadic lifestyle.

Barabander contends that unions are past their prime. “Unions are fighting for survival,” he says. “Their mainstream areas are largely in government and factory settings. Over the last 35-plus years, their membership has plummeted from 30 percent of the private sector to less than 10 percent. They’re trying to get a piece of the New Economy, yet they don’t even understand it.”

“Unions are most effective in Rust Belt states,” Storms adds. Yet, he concedes that management could be more receptive to techies’ needs. “Many technology companies are run by young managers who are open to improving working conditions,” he says. “They don’t want to lose valuable workers. It’s wrong to assume they’re averse to sitting down with workers who have legitimate gripes.”

However, Barabander and Storms represent management. Naturally, they’re going to trash unions. Nevertheless, I agree with their point of view. Unions have their place, but not in technology industries. The majority of techies thrive on controlling their own careers. Most are highly skilled, creative, and very much in demand—even in a cooling economy.

Think about what you’d do if a union rep asked you to sign on the dotted line. Consider whether union membership will enhance or hinder your career.

Bob Weinstein's weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. The column appears in major daily newspapers throughout the United States.

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