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IT Unions?

Will Big Blue accept a white collar Union?

Though I generally consider myself a liberal, I have to confess that I am anti-union. The current baseball mess is my paradigm case as to why I think unions are typically unnecessary. As Major League billionaires fight down to the wire over what one management source calls “microcosms,” a work stoppage threatens my beloved game yet again. As a Minnesota Twins fan, the threat is particularly nailbiting: A strike could not only wipe out the team’s best regular season since 1965, it also would likely doom the team to contraction. The thought that I’ve heard Herb Carneal call his last game brings tears to my eyes.

Fortunately, as I write this, it appears MLB will avoid a strike this time around, which would give me reason to celebrate on this Labor Day. It also gives me cause to examine whether unions are necessary in high tech. Analysts have stewed over the issue since 2000, when dot-commers toiled night and day, ultimately for worthless stock options. Though I’m anti-union, I had some sympathy for the union arguments at the time. In general, I believe unions are necessary only when a new kind of commerce springs up (e.g., the Industrial Revolution). In these cases, labor laws lag behind ethical standards of fair employee treatment. Once the laws catch up, unions become an unnecessary drag on the economic prospects of workers. In the case of dot-commers, laws hadn’t caught up to a higher standard of stock option use (they still haven’t). So there might still be some cause for dot-com unions. But, what happens when the law catches up to stock option use and dot-commers are stuck paying for a union whose purpose is redundant to the law?

The trouble is, once unions get a toehold in a particular industry, they often run amuck and damage the industry’s ability to be profitable and hire and pay workers. In those cases, they can do more harm than good to workers’ prospects in those industries. I would argue that the MLB union is doing just that by refusing to enable small-market owners to make enough money to pay all but the top 5 percent of ball players. And a strike would take more dollars out of the pockets of ballplayers by turning away the customers who ultimately pay their salaries. It would be especially harmful to the veteran role players who have to audition for jobs every year.

The most recent cause celebre on the high-tech union front comes from IBM. Big Blue has a culture of unpaid overtime that workers have gladly taken on because of its complementary culture of IBM lifers. If you are hired at IBM for a permanent full-time position, the understanding is you are hired for life, barring a major screw-up or a breakdown. You pay for this tenure with long hours, and most techies would take the trade-off. But when IBM announced it would lay off tens of thousands of its IT lifers, the remaining workers started talking about getting unionized. The question is, what would happen to companies like IBM if their techies all joined a union? Would it be good for the techies in the long run?

Here’s one scenario that might make IBMers think twice about making Big Blue a union shop. When IBM is forced by a union to either pay for overtime or send techies home on time, development will obviously get more expensive for the company. As margins decrease, investors will call for cost cutting, which will involve more layoffs. IBM’s board will also pressure management to use cheaper labor so that it can continue necessary development at a lower cost. This means it will hire more H-1B visa workers and build programming houses over in India. The net result is a lot fewer available jobs for U.S. IT workers. As in baseball, the top talent will be retained and will benefit from shorter hours. But the middle tier of IT workers will have a harder time finding work.

What do you think about IT unions? Send your thoughts to [email protected]

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com

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