IT Workers of the World: Are They Unionizing?

In the 1930s, muscle-bound steel workers served as the poster boys for the AFL-CIO. They were in the driver’s seat of the American economy, and they called the shots. Today, it’s the decidedly unstrapping IT worker who has slipped behind the wheel. Will brainy software engineers replace the brawny men of yore as the spokesmodels for labor unions and exploited workers in the new economy? The answer is yes. And no.

According to a poll in February on TechRepublic.com, a website for IT professionals, 45 percent of IT workers are interested in joining a labor union for high-tech employees. Others are doing more than just expressing passing interest. They’re joining existing unions, such as the 740,000-member Communications Workers of America (CWA), based in Washington, D.C., and the 75,000-member International Federation for Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), based in Silver Spring, Md. They’re also forming their own unions, such as the 250-member Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), which organized programmers at Microsoft and helped bring to resolution a lawsuit against the company for misclassifying long-term contract workers as temps and for denying benefits to those contractors.

Surprised By All This Interest In Unions? You’re Not Alone.

Randy Wiley, CIO of the state of Arizona Department of Water Resources, speaks for 60 percent of CIOs, according to a CIO survey (for full survey results see KnowPulse Poll, January 2001; www.cio.com/printlinks). "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 his CIO colleagues are perplexed by the news media’s obsessive attention to the topic of labor unions. Though headlines from The New York Times, Computerworld and The Industry Standard, among others, read as though unions will soon infiltrate your office, poison your workers with propaganda and bring your IT department to a standstill with a strike, the organizing efforts that have erupted in IT are unlikely to pose an immediate, if any, threat to CIOs.

Nevertheless, IT executives should not dismiss the groundswell of interest as media hype or a passing fad--especially if they are concerned about their staffs’ productivity and well-being. Common themes run through the tiny web of unionization efforts, and they’re worth listening to. They often address poorly crafted corporate policies that don’t take into account the special needs of IT workers (for example, training) and IT departments (staffing), on which CIOs are already battling HR. In fact, the high-tech unions that are forming look less like the locals in a mob movie and more like a professional guild interested in promoting its craft.

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 might in the fight against stodgy corporate policies to obtain additional training and benefits for their staffs. CIOs might even learn that, contrary to popular belief, unions actually 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, 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, 1998; www.cio.com/printlinks). "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 Union Label

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. The repositioning is also meant to be more attractive to both the CIOs with which the groups are trying to work and the software engineers they’re trying to attract. Indeed, the high-tech unions that labor leaders and some IT workers are trying to form are markedly different from common perceptions of unions as complacent stranglers of innovation. Labor leaders such as Candice Johnson, spokeswoman for the CWA, and others recognize 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 are training, establishing standards for software development, protecting their benefits, 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. However, 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 where 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.

As for the H1-B visa, the skilled-worker immigration law has led many programmers to realize that management no longer views them as white-collar professionals but as bodies that manufacture code. If companies can procure cheaper labor to write application programming interfaces (APIs) through H1-B visa holders, they’ll do it. "What happened in manufacturing with a 13-year-old girl [in Nepal] making Nike shoes could happen to the IT industry," says Bill Lessard, coauthor of NetSlaves: True Tales of Working the Web (McGraw Hill, 1999). Extreme, but not unimaginable.

Besides training, another issue that’s advantageous to both companies and workers is setting up 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.

Thomas Malone, a professor of information systems at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, sees guilds--professional groups that provide workers with access to training and benefits--on the rise and forming out of labor unions.

In fact, The Programmers’ Guild was formed in 1998 to promote the programming profession, although it does not offer any formal training or benefits. With nearly 1,000 members, this virtual professional organization (www.programmersguild.org) addresses the need for standards along with training, certification and H1-B visas that are for skilled foreign workers, says John Miano, cofounder of the guild. Miano ardently maintains that The Programmers’ Guild is not a union because it does not have contracts with employers or 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.

Union or guild, these organizations recognize that what’s good for the employee is good for the company. Now, if CIOs would only come to their senses and realize that the enemy is not the employee-union-guild-whatever but stodgy corporate HR.

Common Enemy

If corporate policies don’t support or show respect for employees, workers are going to form unions, which is exactly what happened at IBM when the company announced on July 1, 1999, that it was changing its retiree health plan. Staff members, particularly older ones who had spent most if not all of their careers with the computer giant and had the most to lose from the change, felt the company betrayed them. "The same month they announced the pension plan cut, IBM announced its most profitable quarter," says Linda Guyer, a project manager in Web development who’s been with the company in Endicott, N.Y., for 19 years.

Twenty-three-year IBM veteran Devin Kruse, a programmer in San Jose, Calif., says the company told employees it was cutting retirement benefits to cut costs and stay competitive, while it improved retirement benefits for executives.

"Unfortunately, today most companies see their workers as nothing more than cattle to be fattened, milked and slaughtered," says Bill Costine, who works in computer support at IBM. "You can bet it is affecting performance. Many long-term employees, often the best performers or the most valuable, are leaving," he adds.

"If you want to have productive workers," says Kruse, "you need to pay them and support them." IBM hasn’t changed the pension plan as a result of workers unionizing, but Alliance@IBM, which formed to give IBM employees a voice in shaping corporate polices affecting pensions and benefits, hasn’t given up the fight. Last February, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that IBM could not reprimand employees for displaying pro-union signs on their cars, according to The Poughkeepsie Journal.

IT employees also need an environment that’s conducive to the work they’re doing, and the Dilbert cubes mandated by management don’t cut it.

"If you want your programmers to do a thinking task like software development, do you send them to: (A) a wide open work environment where you can save a few bucks on office space, but where your programmers have to endure the noise of the entire floor; or (B) enclosed offices that will improve productivity?" asks Miano of The Programmers’ Guild. "The corporate answer to that question is (A)--waste $30,000 in productivity to save $2,000 in office costs and conform to the corporate workspace policy."

Negotiating with HR on salaries, benefits, training and work environment would be much easier if CIOs knew how to leverage their employees’ collective voices. And, in essence, that’s what a union does.

Getting Along

CIOs who’ve worked with labor groups agree it’s no picnic. They characterize unions as divisive and adversarial, and say that they prevent them from managing their workers. But dealing with employees--whether unionized or nonunionized--doesn’t have to be that way. Union-savvy CIOs have lessons to share on how their colleagues can work more effectively with their employees to get what they both want from HR.

"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." For instance, the union championed setting up 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, they want. You want a productive employee, a trained employee. You want to retain employees. Unions want that too," says Regan.

Regan says it was difficult to work with the union and establish mutual trust after it defeated his outsourcing effort. He admits 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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