In the 1930s, muscle-bound steel workers served as the poster boys for the AFL-CIO. They were in the driver\u2019s seat of the American economy, and they called the shots. Today, it\u2019s 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\u2019re 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\u2019re 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\u2019re 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\u2019t figure out why anyone in IT would want to go union," says Wiley. "We\u2019re at the top of the scale as far as salary goes. It\u2019s not like someone\u2019s cracking a whip over you. Overall, IT people have it pretty good. I know I\u2019ve always felt like I have."Wiley and his CIO colleagues are perplexed by the news media\u2019s 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\u2019 productivity and well-being. Common themes run through the tiny web of unionization efforts, and they\u2019re worth listening to. They often address poorly crafted corporate policies that don\u2019t 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\u2019s 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\u2019t define it as a threat. It\u2019s just another challenge," he says.The Union LabelThe 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\u2019re 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\u2019t 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\u2019t understand that traditional bread-and-butter issues are not necessarily at the forefront of most IT workers\u2019 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\u2019ll 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\u2019s 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\u2019s no R&D. Everything is about the bottom line. It\u2019s a sweatshop. You\u2019re not making good software. You\u2019re doing spaghetti code. Unless some type of professional organization is formed, we\u2019re going to see a lot more [interest in unions] going forward," he says. Thomas Malone, a professor of information systems at MIT\u2019s 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\u2019 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\u2019 Guild is not a union because it does not have contracts with employers or engage in collective bargaining. WashTech doesn\u2019t 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\u2019s 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 EnemyIf corporate policies don\u2019t 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\u2019s 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\u2019t 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\u2019t 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\u2019s conducive to the work they\u2019re doing, and the Dilbert cubes mandated by management don\u2019t 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\u2019 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\u2019 collective voices. And, in essence, that\u2019s what a union does.Getting AlongCIOs who\u2019ve worked with labor groups agree it\u2019s 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\u2019t 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\u2019s 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\u2019t have otherwise been able to obtain. Regan is also leveraging unionized employees\u2019 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\u2019 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\u2019m going to tell them something that I can do and get their support on it," he says.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\u2019s attention and ultimately change the contract. The contract didn\u2019t say anything about giving employees formal evaluations, so the manager couldn\u2019t 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\u2019t 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 OutlookBecause 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\u2019t see the hammer hitting them," says The Programmers\u2019 Guild\u2019s Miano. "You can hit them up and down their heads and they say, \u2019Thank you, sir, I\u2019ll have another.\u2019"Still, those IT workers on the inside of the movement have more faith. "It\u2019s not a passing fad," says IBM\u2019s Guyer, of IT workers\u2019 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\u2019 grievances now, the movement won\u2019t need to gain steam later.