Tim Heard is a technical recruiter for JC Malone, a career placement service. Tim shares his career advice by answering questions from TechRepublic members or commenting on employment trends.

During the past few months, I’ve noticed quite a few comments in the discussions following my career-advice articles about unionizing as a means of dealing with current economic woes. To gain perspective on the issue, I thought it would be interesting to have a conversation with a leader of a technical union and get their official stance on the situation.

I recently had an e-mail interview with Marcus Courtney, president of WashTech, a union of technology workers. In the past, the union has spoken out against such issues as “nondisparagement” agreements, which prohibit laid-off workers from criticizing the former employer, and H1-B visas. Here’s a look at the questions I asked and Courtney’s responses.

TechRepublic: I’ve noticed a lot of discussion lately among technical professionals about joining a union. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed an increase in interest in joining your union in the past year or so, and whether you think the interest seems to be correlated with the economic downturn. If so, is it reasonable to expect that some of that interest will wane if and when the country’s economic health is restored?
Courtney: We all know that the glossy magazines and investor reports don’t tell the whole story about what it’s really like to work in this industry. The economic downturn has made the top issues facing technology professionals job security, health care, and wages.
This is a significant turnaround from a few years ago when most techies felt that in the new economy, old economy issues such as job security were part of a bygone era. I understand these issues firsthand. During the boom years, I worked as a contractor for four years in the Seattle area and at Microsoft as a “permatem,” living these concerns. It was this experience that made me realize that organizing into a union would be the only opportunity for us to create change and have a voice.
The economic downturn has created an opportunity for WashTech to reach out to more people that are beginning to understand that only through an organized and representative voice will they be able to achieve increased job security, improved health care, and better pay. The number of people reaching out and contacting WashTech has increased in the last year. People aren’t interested in WashTech because we are WashTech, but because we stand for improved benefits and security.

TechRepublic: What has been WashTech’s response to the economic downturn?
Courtney: WashTech has responded to the economic downturn in a number of ways. One, we’ve launched a workforce training initiative to broaden access to affordable training for tech workers, in particular unemployed tech workers. For example, a WashTech member that is unemployed can take one of our training classes and defer payment for up to six months if he or she is unemployed. We’re also working with area community colleges to help ensure that a broader range of tech workers can have access to the latest and greatest in training. We’re currently offering classes in XML and Flash.
Second, we have conducted a survey of employers and employees to help determine what the current demand for technology workers is, and what occupations in the future will be the most in demand.
Finally, we’re offering free monthly seminars on topics that unemployed techies can learn from, for example, “How to land on your feet when you are laid off.” This month, we’re doing one on job interviewing skills for shy tech folk.

TechRepublic: I see on your Web site that your union currently doesn’t engage in negotiations in the area of wages and benefits. Are you aware of any unions that have successfully undertaken this with technical professionals such as IT consultants and software engineers?
Courtney: If tech workers want to have more job security and better health care, the only way for that to happen is to organize and join a union to negotiate with management. Our goal is to ultimately have local area technology professionals engage in negotiations with management in the areas of wages and benefits—that is called a collective bargaining agreement.
The right of workers to bargain with management is a fundamental right guaranteed by federal law. To begin negotiations, a majority of workers doing similar work need to vote in favor of union representation, which sounds easy, right? However, organizing workers under the law is very challenging, especially in an industry that boomed more than 50 years after labor law in this country was created and based on a 1940s economic model.
Also, employers launch very aggressive negative campaigns against employees when they try to form unions. WashTech has had representation drives at Microsoft, Amazon, and most recently, Metro One Telecommunications. We haven’t won an election yet, but each time, we break down the myth that high-tech professionals aren’t interested in forming unions.
I think that the Boeing engineers represented by SPEEA (Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace) are a great example of highly educated and trained technical professionals that are represented by a union. Many of their members have advanced degrees in engineering and the sciences but recognized that for them to have a future and build their careers they needed a representative voice.

TechRepublic: There has been much talk in recent years about seeking to develop new paradigms between unions and employers. (In the auto manufacturing industry, for example.) However, when push comes to shove, both parties tend to resort to adversarial roles. Can you envision a relationship between a union representing technical professionals and employers that would be somehow different? If so, how would you like it to be different?
Courtney: I think that technology professionals would approach negotiations differently from workers in other industries. For example, I don’t think techies would want contracts that establish minimum standards for pay and compensation based on experience, but [instead] would want to leave lots of room open for performance-based compensation.

TechRepublic: I understand that the members of your union establish the dues. How much are they currently?
Courtney: WashTech is a local affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, which represents 750,000 workers in the United States, and they set the dues rate. Currently, for members that aren’t represented by a contract, the dues are $11 a month. If you have a contract, it is around two percent of your base salary.

TechRepublic: I have read a number of comments by individuals who would hope that a union of technical professionals could significantly change hiring practices, influence wages, and improve job security. In your opinion, are these expectations realistic? Why or why not?
Courtney: If high-tech workers want improved job security, more secure wages, and better health care, those things can only happen when they start demanding these benefits from their employers. It’s realistic if techies from Seattle to Silicon Valley and beyond begin working together and organizing in their workplaces around these issues.
This is not going to happen overnight. It’s a long-term effort to make sure that every techie has basic benefits and workplace protections.

TechRepublic: How many members does WashTech have?
Courtney: We have 260 members and more than 2,000 people subscribed to our electronic newsletter, the WashTech news.

TechRepublic: What are the major challenges facing technical professionals in the near future, and how would technical unions assist in addressing them?
Courtney: In the near future, it’s going to be addressing the trend of technology jobs moving offshore to places like India and China. I believe that this issue has the potential to unite the technology workforce at…levels never before seen.
The future of the technology workforce is at stake in this issue, because companies are gaining the increased ability to move any job to cheaper labor markets, from the most skilled computer scientist to the test engineer. And this is not an issue based on skill; it’s based strictly on cost of labor. When techies have the organized ability to sit across the table from management, they will have an impact on the future of their jobs in the industry.

Final thoughts
I’ll leave you to judge for yourself whether you think unionizing is the answer. I certainly agree with the sentiment that working for improved benefits and workplace rights is a noble goal.

In this day in which executives can mandate huge layoffs that don’t really benefit the long-term interest of a company, and then walk off with big bonuses, some work needs to be done to protect the worker against the whims of the stockholders. On the other hand, I wonder if this really is the means of bringing about such change.