IT Workers of the World: Are They Unionizing?

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When one IS manager (who requested anonymity) had to deal with unions through a former employer, a consultancy, the most important thing that he had to learn was to invite the union steward to any meeting he wanted to have with a union employee. Giving the steward advance notice about meetings with employees gave the steward time to research whether their discussion would cover any provisions in the contract--the agreement over wages, hours and performance that the union draws up with the company. Alternatively, the meeting with the steward helped the IS manager understand which of his issues were covered by the contract. If it was a contractual issue, the manager could then take it up with the appropriate administrative staff, usually HR, which negotiated the contract. (Though he was not active in contract negotiations, the IS manager advises CIOs to get involved in the process so that they can have a voice in how their workers are treated and managed.) Conversely, if the union steward agreed that a particular issue was not in the contract, having met with the steward in advance made the union more receptive to changing the contract and to the idea he was suggesting.

The anonymous manager also recalls an instance when he used the union workers to bring a problem he had with the contract to the union steward’s attention and ultimately change the contract. The contract didn’t say anything about giving employees formal evaluations, so the manager couldn’t give them; but it did dictate equal salaries and bonuses among all union workers. One unionized worker used this as an excuse to slack off, which annoyed the others. The assiduous workers mentioned to the manager that they were bothered by the slacker and wished they could get some sort of recognition for their hard work. The manager advised them to bring their concern to the steward; in retrospect, he says that having union employees rather than corporate management (himself) address the issues of evaluations and recognition with the steward was much more effective because it didn’t end up in a confrontational meeting.

"Once I learned to work within the constraints of the contract, meetings with the unions were more positive and mutually beneficial," says the IS operations manager. "If CIOs are hearing rumblings about unionization, they should pay attention to it, and as soon as possible, encourage communication between employees and all levels of management." Giving employees a forum in which to air their grievances before management, without fear of getting fired, can often diffuse union efforts before they start, he says.

The Outlook

Because there are so many IT positions open and so few people to fill them, more demands have been placed on IT workers today than ever before. Supervisors and directors have had to take on tactical roles in order to complete projects. In the process, they may have neglected looking after their staffs while everyone, including the CIO, clocks 60 to 70 hours a week. CIOs who are skeptical of high-tech labor unions say long hours come with the territory. Are IT workers the new exploited labor force? The fact is, organizing efforts in IT have been rare, and the biggest barrier to the movement is IT workers themselves. "Programmers don’t see the hammer hitting them," says The Programmers’ Guild’s Miano. "You can hit them up and down their heads and they say, ’Thank you, sir, I’ll have another.’"

Still, those IT workers on the inside of the movement have more faith. "It’s not a passing fad," says IBM’s Guyer, of IT workers’ interest in unions. "But it will take some time to take hold. For women to get the right to vote, it took 100 years."

And if CIOs pay attention to their employees’ grievances now, the movement won’t need to gain steam later.

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Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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