Should IT Form a Union?

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Sixty-hour work weeks with no overtime or comp time, a BlackBerry hitched to your belt 24/7, mandates from managers who have no clue what you actually do -- all for a job that could be outsourced tomorrow. Is it finally time for technology workers to form a union and demand better working conditions?

After all, if Hollywood writers can organize effectively, you'd think IT workers would have a shot. As with Teamsters in the transportation industry, when IT walks off the job, everything comes to a grinding halt.

Unfortunately for would-be organizers, most experts agree that the odds against an IT union are long. Unions don't exactly appeal to the classic techie temperament.

"We're talking about people who are really lone gunmen," says Bill Pfleging, co-author of " The Geek Gap." "They're good at what they do, they're paid well, and they can go wherever they want to -- none of these things are a good fit for working in a union environment."

Then there's the sheer diversity of technical workers -- from help desk personnel to programmers and developers to network and software engineers -- each with their own, sometimes conflicting, issues and concerns.

But that's not stopping some geeks from trying. For example, the Washington Alliance of Tech Workers (WashTech) has been fighting for IT workers' rights for more than 10 years. 

"How much do you think your employer really values your work when they think they can just ship it off to India or China?" asks WashTech director of communications Rennie Sawade. "The union is trying to stand up for your right to be able to work in America and have a job." WashTech is now seeking people to help organize and recruit members, says Sawade. 

So far WashTech, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, has had limited success. In November 2005, it organized approximately 1,100 employees at a Cingular (now AT&T) Call Center in Bothell, Wash. The union is currently negotiating with AT&T over benefits; salary discussions are slated for next year. WashTech also has 243 at-large members, mostly software engineers.

Another CWA-affiliated tech union, Alliance@IBM, boasts roughly 300 dues-paying members, from IT specialists and programmers to scientists, says Lee Conrad, national coordinator for the union.

"Even though IT workers are considered a different type of animal, they're still impacted by the same things that hit the manufacturing industries 10 or 15 years ago -- pay cuts, downsizing, and loss of benefits," says Conrad. "We are seeking a union contract, a voice in the workplace, and more respect for IT employees."

But the alliance is still looking to secure a seat at the table with IBM management. So far, its most noteworthy accomplishment is staging picket lines outside the company's annual shareholder meetings.

A better alternative, say some, may be a professional organization modeled after the American Bar Association or American Medical Association. Less formal or rigidly organized than a union, it would allow technology professionals to speak with one voice on issues that affect them all -- such as maintaining limits on H-1B visas for foreign employees or offering tax incentives for companies that keep IT jobs onshore.

"The diversity of employers and job skills makes unionizing IT workers unrealistic, other than within certain large employers," notes Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, a nonprofit that works to advance IT issues. "But clearly IT workers need a voice to level the playing field against the powerful industry lobbying groups, like ITAA, Compete America, and NFAP."

This story, "Should IT Form a Union?" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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