In response to my last column about The New York Times article on Amazon being "a bruising workplace," several TechRepublic readers suggested in the comments that the only way to prevent these types of working conditions is for IT pros to form unions. I don't agree.
Unions may seem like an appropriate response. On the surface, some IT workers experience a modern-day equivalent of the conditions that drove mass unionization during the industrial revolution: long hours, wages that pit worker against worker, and a management structure that seemingly holds profit well above individual employee well-being. While the intent of unionization is likely noble, it is the wrong path for IT workers.
The commodity problem
Perhaps one of the greatest detriments to adopting a union model for IT shops is that unions generally assume a commoditized workforce, with little differentiation between people performing a particular job. Many of the jobs that are traditionally represented by unions fit this description.
For example, bolting a door to a vehicle frame in an auto plant where automated tools set the correct torque and take much of the skill out of the task can be learned in a day or two, effectively allowing anyone to perform the job. Thus, unions establish pay grades based on how long one has worked for the employer, or how much specialized training or education one has taken. For instance, Mary has worked at the company for 10 years, so she will likely get more pay than Bob since he's only been there for five years.
The main problem with the collective bargaining model employed by unions is that it's impossible to take individual performance into account when attempting to set collective compensation practices. Setting pay based on "time served" and education attained rarely maps to job performance, and tends to favor the median and low performance worker. Why excel when individual performance does nothing to advance one's personal circumstance?
Can the game be rigged?
Another sentiment expressed in arguing for IT workers' unions is that IT employment is rigged in favor of the employer. If an IT pro does not wish to work weekends or respond to midnight emails, they would quickly be displaced by another person willing to make those sacrifices. In a high-performance environment, this is certainly true.
Like many in the industry, my hours extend beyond 9-5, and I'm well aware that there are people in and outside the US who would have my job in a second. However, I've long ensured I'm aware of market rates for someone in my position, and that I negotiate appropriately for the effort I'm willing to commit to an employer, and ultimately am comfortable with the contract between my employer and myself. There have certainly been times when that compensation was not monetary, and I've spent months or years in lower-paying roles to gather knowledge, capabilities, and connections that I could later use to my benefit. If there's a game to be rigged, it can be played by both employer and employee, and if the latter fails to represent his or her interests, they can certainly be exploited with or without a union.
Furthermore, a transition toward unionization could alter that "game" to the point that hiring certain classes or geographies of workers is untenable. Auto manufacturing is an obvious parallel, where highly-compensated unionized workers caused a shift in auto manufacturing away from the Detroit area, both to lower-cost countries and to non-union US states. It's significantly easier to send IT work (which requires no shipping or retooling) to other countries, as some IT workers have experienced.
Jobs for everyone
While IT jobs have evolved rapidly, they have also grown in scope. Gone are the days when you could spend a career knowing a single technology or a programming language; now, technologists are just as relevant in Marketing as they are in a traditional IT shop. This has created a huge demand for technical skill, and a corresponding diversity in the types of jobs available to technologists.
Amazon, for instance, represents the equivalent of the NFL of the technology industry, requiring hard work and long hours for the top performers, while also providing the highest pay and the opportunity to work with the best technology. Roles with less rigorous demands abound as well. Just as hundreds of hours of training and hard work to compete at the highest levels of sport would alienate many of us, so too might the demands of a company like Amazon.
Take control of your IT career
This may sound like a "let the markets decide" argument against unionization, but rather than the markets, it's up to the individual IT worker to ensure his or her interests are well represented and accounted for. Neither an uncaring marketplace nor a collective-oriented union can fully represent one's individual, rational self-interest. While there may be a line of people waiting to take my position, I maintain control over my skills and qualifications, and I will happily say "no" to an unreasonable demand as long as my skills and capabilities are appropriate for my job, and my performance is more attractive than that of the nearest competitor.
Rather than looking to outsource negotiations with our employers to a union, or blaming faceless forces from markets to managers, take control of your skills and capabilities, and realize that you have every right to negotiate with, and ultimately "fire" your employer, just as he or she has the same rights over the relationship. There may be down times when you accept a lower-paying position to develop skills or weather an economic storm, but there will also be high times, when savvy employees migrate up the compensation ladder internally or through lateral moves.
Some have lamented the disappearance of "employment for life" at a single employer, but this street goes both ways. For IT workers especially, there's almost limitless possibility for someone who represents him or her self and takes control of their career.
- Should IT be unionized?
- IT pros take a cautious approach to unions
- Amazon workers reject proposal to form first US union (CNET)
- Amazon vs the unions: Wages go up, but are workers paid enough? (ZDNet)
Note: TechRepublic, CNET, and ZDNet are CBS Interactive properties.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.