I touched a nerve with the talk of unions for geeks.
I received a flood of very intelligent responses to my Sept. 2 column on unions in IT. The vast majority of the responses disagreed with my general attitude against unions. This surprised me at first, because I thought unions were anathema to the generally conservative viewpoint of our readership. But an article in the UpFront section of this week’s BusinessWeek indicates an error in my thinking. A couple of labor-sponsored polls show a reversal of popular opinion toward labor since the Reagan era. According to the AFL-CIO, where the ratio of those who oppose unions to those who support them in this country stood at 70/30 in the mid ’80s, it’s now at 40/50 (with many more undecideds than in the Reagan years). Just last year, the ratio stood at 50/40. The story cited management malfeasance as the cause of a recent reversal of public opinion. Just the employees of Enron and WorldCom who lost their entire retirement savings at the hands of their employers could make a dent in the ratio.
Underestimating the relative popularity of unions was not my only error. Several of your arguments helped me understand the concept of unions better, and helped me come up with a more informed opinion. Several of you pointed out that executive greed drives companies to pump their own stock into employee pension plans; the same greed drives executives to lay off workers if there is any indication of not meeting their numbers in a given quarter; and if executives don’t behave in these ways, their boards and shareholders will insist that they do. Without unions, there is no complementary mechanism to protect workers from this behavior. So to rail against the very idea of unions is akin to endorsing behavior that has cost hundreds of thousands of U.S workers their livelihoods in the last two years.
Obviously, I am not absolutely anti-union or absolutely pro-union. The only opinion I hold absolutely is the denial of absolutist thinking. Few things are absolutely true; if they are, they are either unprovable or not worth saying. The issue is not whether unions are appropriate in some circumstances but rather, in what circumstances they are appropriate. My argument was that unions are not needed in cases where the law makes it a crime for management to force workers into dangerous, degrading, or demeaning conditions either on the job or after retirement. The best responses to this argument again come from readers. Tom Harnsberger, a union firefighter for 19 years, explains that unions are needed to lobby for laws that enhance the safety of workers. He says that without his union insisting on safe practices on the job, he may not be alive today. There is no better paradigm argument for unions to protect the safety of workers than in the firefighting profession, especially with the solemn ceremonies that commemorated the 9/11 tragedy in the past week.
Other readers augment Harnsbarger’s argument about the need for union legal protection, not just to lobby for new laws but to represent workers in cases where management has violated existing laws. Enron shows us how money can buy laws that enhance the bottom line, sometimes at the expense of employees. Without unions to act as the legal arm of employees, there is no counterbalancing force to represent workers in Washington and in the courtroom. Sure, employees can file class-action suits and whatnot, but without union organization in the background, they do so at considerable risk to their own livelihoods. Whistleblowers often end up on the streets.
OK, so unions are necessary to protect workers from illegal corporate behavior and to push for laws that enhance the safety and well-being of workers. Does this also apply to the IT ranks? IT workers are not exactly firefighters or coal miners. One of my colleagues pointed out that nobody forced dot-com workers to slave over their keyboards for low salaries all for the promise of stock options. They decided to become partners with management in striving to make a killing in e-commerce. There were less risky jobs available at the time if they wanted to make money the old-fashioned way. So even when I expressed a pro-union stance, it was misinformed.
But in these supposedly less risky jobs, such as at IBM, is there room for unions? There are some areas where IT workers conditions could improve. Enron shows us that we need laws to ensure proper 401K and pension management. OSHA released ergonomic guidelines last year that have yet to gain widespread acceptance because of management’s resistance. Whether a particular company treats its employees with the dignity they deserve in spite of the absence of laws will depend on the company. IBM is one of the best companies to work for in terms of giving employees the latest and greatest workstations, employee stability, and retirement plans. Even so, readers who work for IBM say there is cause for unions, if only to protect the rank and file against layoffs in a management-heavy environment.
Given the pendulum swing in popular opinion and high-profile cases like Enron and WorldCom, I would not be surprised if unions make inroads into IT. If they do, I can no longer say it would be a net negative, as I indicated two weeks ago. Though it may force more off-shore IT development, it will at least guarantee dignified employment for the cream of the crop in the United States.
James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com