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Uuunions!

Unions are the natural result of bad management.

Is there an IT manager out there who does not have some muscle pucker when the word “union” is mentioned? (Outside the context of an SQL statement.) Over the past two or three decades, IT management has been politically conditioned to loath and fear unions even while fewer and fewer workers of any kind are union members and unions themselves have steadily been losing coherence, influence, and even relevance.

The bogeyman approach to unions is amazingly obtuse. For one thing, the reality of having unions in higher tech industries is not new. Communications companies have had unions for a long time, just ask the present and former Bell Telephone managers about it. It certainly hasn’t always been an amicable or efficient relationship, but unions have worked alongside management in many important high tech companies without causing them to go bankrupt or even lose market position. These days the potential for fatal flaws in corporations usually aren’t coming from labor VS management issues but from managerial mistakes.

Today’s fragmentary and occasional attempts at unionization in IT (e.g. Amazon.com and eTown) are much more the reflection of local screw-ups with employees than a powerful wave of unionization sweeping across the country. In fact, let me suggest that any company worried about its IT employees joining (or forming) a union is doing something really, really wrong.

Unions serve their historical function when employees are confronted by intractable management practices such as unlivable wages, bad working conditions, and huge disparities between levels of pay. Even conditions such as these are sometimes overlooked unless they are combined with personal management styles like arrogance, stupidity, or meanness. There’s also a certain amount of cohesion necessary among employees. Often this is provided by a hatred of management or certain management practices but sometimes it’s just sharing the daily grind of the job–especially relatively static jobs that don’t provide challenge or much interest.

None of these conditions should describe jobs in IT. Of course there are ‘menial’ tasks in IT. Data entry is obviously in that category as are a lot of clerical and maintenance kinds of work. In most IT organizations these hold a relatively small percentage of the jobs. Unless the shop is huge (as in Amazon.com) there are often not enough workers of this kind to even make unionization an idea. Among the professionals (i.e. those with enough education or chutzpah to think they have mastered some aspect of IT), the need for unions should be minimal. I repeat–should be–based upon the pervasive IT atmosphere of challenge, reward, and competition.

It’s the nature of most IT work that it revolves around the effort of individuals or relatively small teams of people. It relies a great deal on initiative, knowledge, and special skills. There is a lot more entrepreneurial spirit in IT workers of all stripes than in most other industries. This goes in spades for IT people involved with the Internet–and not all of them are in dot-coms either. None of these people fit the classical or even contemporary mold for union workers. Without some kind of bonehead management, they will not be candidates for unionization.

Of course we used to be in a period of prosperity. Workers could be bought off with pieces of paper that had “Stock” printed in a corner. IT workers participated in an unprecedented period of growth, when corporations were hiring IT people as fast as they could–and still there was a shortage of skilled people. Money was thrown around with relative abandon, and the atmosphere in most IT shops was can do.

Today the attitude is moving toward make do. Money is tighter. There will be fewer jobs (although shortages in certain skill areas will persist). It will be harder to make employees satisfied, much less happy. It will take greater management skill. Otherwise the conditions for unions will improve. What-or who-is the bogeyman in this picture?

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Pursuits monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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