Having spent most of my career in the IT sector, I never thought much about unions until recently. I believed that unions were only for autoworkers, truck drivers, airline mechanics, or other similar large labor groups. When working conditions are unsafe, the pay low, or the promotion practices unfair, employees would band together in a union for strength and support. But the IT industry as a whole has traditionally been, and still is, typified by secure and well-paying jobs. Yet the future may not be so bright, causing technology workers across the country to contemplate the efficacy of IT unions. An October 30, 2000 TechRepublic poll, in fact, showed 45 percent of the respondents would join an IT union if one were available.
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A shaky beginning for IT unions
Within the past year, two significant IT unionization attempts have met with less than stellar success. The consumer electronics site Etown.com and online retail giant Amazon have both been the focus of unionization drives by employees who cite poor working conditions, low pay, and a lack of job security.
According to published reports, Amazon workers seeking unionization are working with the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech. Marcus Courtney, cofounder of WashTech, said that dissatisfied Amazon workers have "no effective voice" when it comes to how their department is run and are forced to work "enormous" amounts of mandatory overtime.
Yet these endeavors have been relatively small, isolated events, failing to draw broad support from the general IT community. Without more support, localized unionization efforts may never get off the ground, and a grassroots revolution in the IT community is not likely in the near future. But why is there such a lack of support? Are conditions in the overall IT industry so good that employees do not feel the need to unionize? Or is it something else?
The employee's perspective
Wanting to get firsthand experiences and opinions about unions, I talked with three IT professionals. The first, Kurt Moser, an Oracle programmer/analyst for a large enterprise, has a rather unique perspective. Before entering the IT field, Kurt taught high school math and was required to join the local teacher's union.
Kurt found this organization to be a "tremendous waste" of his money and "simply ineffective." Feeling he could create "opportunities on his own merit," Kurt says he left the union as soon as possible. Overall, he doesn't feel that unions fit well within the IT industry. Unions, Kurt believes, protect workers who are overworked, grossly underpaid, at risk of losing their jobs, facing a job field with few employment opportunities, or covered by a near-uniform pay scale. These are not the characteristics that come to mind when thinking of the IT industry.
Pay me what I'm worth
When talking with Kurt, it seems as though the last item bothers him the most. Unions, he says, "promote similar pay growth for all employees, regardless of performance. [This practice is] definitely not in the best interest of talented IT people." The other two professionals that I spoke with share this sentiment. Dave Fuchs is a technical support specialist with a corporate help desk supporting over 3,000 employees. Chris McDannold is the manager of International Customer Operations for Excite@Home.
"While I don't think unions are all bad," Dave says, "almost all of them have a wage scale. This definitely wouldn't fit into most [IT] shops where wages are commensurate with knowledge, experience, and ability." Chris agrees that a predetermined compensation package can limit an IT professional's ability to grow within an organization. "I prefer to earn my keep by my own actions," Chris says.
A place for IT unions
While acknowledging that it's not a perfect match, Dave still believes unions may have a place in the IT industry. "Having worked as an IT contractor," Dave says, "I can say it's a tough business and although the law protects you to a certain degree, it often isn't enough." Unions could offer IT workers this type of protection, but it would come at a high price.
A fair trade?
I believe that ultimately, unions—IT or otherwise—are like every other safety measure: They offer security in exchange for freedom. A union can protect workers from unfair labor policies and guarantee a regulated pay scale, but these measures come at the cost of the individual's ability to control their own career.
The future of IT unions will depend on the industry's overall working conditions. Because unions are born out of necessity, if conditions in the IT industry degenerate to an unbearable state, workers could be willing to trade a little freedom for security. I don't believe we're there yet, but with the United States' slowing economic growth, we may be soon.
Bill Detwiler has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the social research and energy industries. He has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Louisville, where he has also lectured on computer crime and crime prevention.