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Should Programmers Unionize?

by Velaki (Chaplain)
on Jan 15, 2008 at 13:44 UTC ( #662465=perlmeditation: print w/ replies, xml ) Need Help??

All the discussion in "Programmers Blue Collar?" started me thinking about the class divide between programmers and management. Are programmers a collection of workers who should speak with one voice (e.g. steelworkers), or are they specialist individuals who work on a common theme? (e.g. doctors)

All this begs the question:

Should programmers be unionized?

If so, what form should it take? Should it be a

  • Formal Workers' Union
  • "Crafting" Guild
  • Something Else

Without going too much into whether programmers represent the means of production, what are your opinions about programmer unionization? For those of you who are management, how does it change your view of your IT staff? In fact, should all IT undergo this kind of transformation, and consider themselves virtual extensions of, say, the electricians union?

Pondering,
-v.

"Perl. There is no substitute."

Comment on Should Programmers Unionize?
Re: Should Programmers Unionize?
by apl (Monsignor) on Jan 15, 2008 at 15:35 UTC
    Opposed. I'm better than some of my peers, not as good as others. Working in the financial industry, we each deserve a bonus that reflects our skill level.

    Just as bad, it'd be impossible to get rid of some people that desperately needed removal.

    Mind you, I was in a union while I was in High School, and my father and grandfathers were union men. What we do now and what was done then are quite different. What we work on is distinct (though complimentary), as opposed to being identical copies of what everyone else does.

    A Guild is closer to what we are, a group of skilled individuals who share the same craft. But that's quite different than a Union.

    I just realized that the Writers Guild of America is a union and a Guild. What we do is analagous to what their members do. I need to think about this...

    Revised slightly for clarity.
      It's official: I disagree with myself. Protections are needed for those new to the field, as well as for those who are sufficiently old that they worry about keeping themselves curent with emerging technologies. Unions have been the traditional guardians of both groups.

      If there's one thing the Bush Administration has proven it's that Economic Darwinism should not be the philosophy of a society.

      So I don't know if we should be unionized or not. I regret wasting two nodes...
        I love thinking about this question. One benefit of a union was the ability to strike, to stop work, to physically prevent access to tools and raw materials so that the Product could not be mnanufactured.

        How would Programmers strike? Management would disable our ability to remotely log in (locking us out), but how could we prevent others from being given remote access, as well as access to the development environment, source code, etc.?

        In other words, how could a union for Programmers be effective?
Re: Should Programmers Unionize?
by g0n (Priest) on Jan 15, 2008 at 16:05 UTC
    It's important to recognise that unions and unionisation are regarded very differently in different parts of the world, and the local legislation about it can vary too.

    In Europe as a whole, legislation concerning union recognition and collective negotiation tends to be much more pro-union than in the USA, and there is a much less negative public perception of unions in general.

    I'd be surprised if a reasonable proportion (i.e. not a majority, but double figures percentage) of IT workers here in the UK weren't members of one union or another.

    Update: The question was 'Should programmers unionize'. Obviously this is a matter of opinion, but in my view there are reasons for, and reasons against. What has happened in the UK in heavily unionised industries (the railways for example) is that the unions have become extremely bureaucractic, and it can be difficult for individuals to be recognised for their achievements until they've 'served their time'. On the other hand, if a large group are relatively disenfranchised, something that many feel is happening in our industry, unionisation is pretty much the only way to put things back in balance. It depends how bad you think things have got :-S

    --------------------------------------------------------------

    "If there is such a phenomenon as absolute evil, it consists in treating another human being as a thing."
    John Brunner, "The Shockwave Rider".

Re: Should Programmers Unionize?
by DrHyde (Prior) on Jan 16, 2008 at 11:46 UTC

    Of course programmers should join a union. Any employee who doesn't is a fool. Why? Because employers *will* fuck their employees over, often using illegal methods (usually out of ignorance, rarely deliberately). When you're a member of a union, you can call on their free land-sharks, who are wise in the ways of employment law. In my experience, the mere threat of that - just calling my union rep in to have a chat with my manager when he starts on some bogus disciplinary bullshit - is enough to make the employer see sense.

    Lots of people have the crazy notion that being a member of a union makes you surrender your rights to, for example, negotiate your own pay deal. And that being a member of a union means you have to obey union officials. That's all nonsense. I've been a union member for fifteen years, and in that time they've never interfered in my salary negotiations because I've never asked them to, nor have they ever told me what to do. They've advised me, sure, and sometimes I've taken their advice, but they've never told me. And if they did tell me, I'd tell 'em where to shove it.

    And being a member of a union doesn't have to be expensive either. I think that in total, in all my fifteen years of membership, I've maybe paid one month of my current salary in membership fees.

    Yeah yeah, I know, it differs from place to place and some places apparently have crappy unions. Fine. So start your own. You and a hundred mates, each paying 20 quid a month (or whatever the equivalent is in shiny local beads) should be enough to get at least legal advice for any of your members who need it.

    For those in the UK, I recommend joining Unite, which has a section specifically for computery people.

      As has already been mentioned, it depends heavily on which side of the Atlantic you're on. Here in the US, I've never been a member of a union, but I've known a lot of people who have. I've heard their stories. And those stories consistently fall into two categories:

      1) The union screws over those who are any good.
      2) Those who should be fired manipulate union rules so that it's impossible to get rid of them.

      "the crazy notion that being a member of a union makes you surrender your rights to, for example, negotiate your own pay deal"? I know teachers who work for a union which dictates that pay rates be determined solely by how many years you've been on the job. Skill, ability, and personal negotiation are completely irrelevant and disallowed.

      "being a member of a union means you have to obey union officials"? What scope of obedience are we talking about? A couple years back, my dad's union (which he's a member of only because they've convinced the company to take union dues out of his paycheck whether he's a member or not) was considering a strike. They put it to the members for a vote - with the stipulation that, if you vote against striking and a strike actually happens, the union won't pay your wages during the strike. Is it at all surprising that the strike was overwhelmingly approved, since nobody could afford the risk of going against the union bosses? (Another fun story from my dad's job: The union has reprimanded him for being too efficient. It seems he was doing his job so well that it made his "brothers" look bad by comparison.)

      So I'm obviously no fan of unions and tend to think of them as corrupt and even worse than the worst of the modern-day corporations operating in the US. But, on the flip side, my girlfriend, being from Sweden, has entirely the opposite viewpoint and sometimes seems to find it difficult to imagine that anyone might not want to be a member of a union. Apparently they operate very differently there than they do here.

        Your local unions being corrupt is why I suggested that people in your unfortunate position start their own.
Re: Should Programmers Unionize?
by samizdat (Vicar) on Jan 16, 2008 at 14:49 UTC
    After reading the commentary in this thread, I have to write a follow-up to my first: Re: Programmers Blue Collar?

    I see here some of the reasons why unions aren't a good idea:
    • populist misrepresentation -- W is not an economic Darwinist, he's a _political_ power manipulator, an entirely different thing
    • talk about destroying a company's productivity if you're not happy

    Whew! I won't deny that companies do impose demands, sometimes unreasonable and usually uncompensated, on 'exempt' (salaried) workers. I just went through a six month overtime drubbing to complete a project. However, I'm also getting well over $20K more than I used to when I had the luxury of forty hour weeks. It is definitely my choice to stay, as it is anyone's.

    Populist slickos like John Edwards to the contrary, corporations are on the whole a good thing. {note: the corporate exec compensation issue is an entirely separate problem not addressed here.} They provide millions of steady jobs for people who are unwilling to create jobs themselves by being entrepreneurs. The truth of the matter is that a "job" includes a measure of serfdom, by its very nature. You trade some freedom for a mostly-guaranteed paycheck and an array of 'benefits'. Part of that freedom you give up is the ability to set your own wage scale. I have a good friend who I visited yesterday who owns his own embedded computing business. He can keep as much as he has left over at the end of the month, and sometimes that's a killer lot of money. However, it's feast and famine, because surely as the Sun rises and sets, he'll be scrambling again in a few months. Most average people, especially with families, can't or won't accept the risk or stress of entrepreneurial insecurity.

    I dislike giving any power to either the W's of the political world or the Lenins of the socialist "worker's paradise" stripe. DrHyde's commentary is a good example of why union power can be a bad thing. He considers his personal powerlessness to be sufficient reason to disrupt a smoothly functioning system that provides paychecks and security for hundreds if not thousands of his fellow human beings, not to mention products we all value and need. He reminds me of the nasties from Earth First or the Weathermen, who believed it is perfectly legitimate to murder to make a point. Murdering a corporation is very little different than murdering a human being, except that you affect hundreds or thousands.

    I think people (including programmers) should be allowed to form unions. I also think that corporations should be allowed to toss them out and hire replacements, whether from another union, guild, or non-attached. That's the one most egregiously evil abomination that has come about: union tenure. It comes from the evil that is the corruption of the American political system: political party power. I think that the day that Caterpillar told its union workers to get stuffed and kicked them out was one of the best days in economic history. Unfortunately, most unions have gotten <quote>legal</quote> protection for their tenure, and that is an absolute Bad Thing. There should be a ZMA to hold the AMA to the fire. The LA Harbor Authority should be able to tell the longshoremen to get lost without needing shotguns to keep ships and cargos from being vandalized. Etc., etc., etc.

    Most of all, the Democrats and Republicans need to be stripped of all the special perks and built-ins they've awarded themselves. Until we take back our government, we will all continue to be screwed, whether from the "left" or from the "right".

    Don Wilde
    "There's more than one level to any answer."
      I agree with most of what you posted, and understand where you're coming from when I don't. However (you saw that coming):

      I think people (including programmers) should be allowed to form unions. I also think that corporations should be allowed to toss them out and hire replacements, whether from another union, guild, or non-attached.

      Which means a union has zero power. Which means a union is useless. Which implies unions shouldn't exist.

      Most of all, the Democrats and Republicans need to be stripped of all the special perks and built-ins they've awarded themselves.

      The original Bill of Rights included an amendment that required a Congressional pay increase et al be granted not to themselves, not to their successor Congress, but to the successor Congress after that. I wonder how different things would be today if it had been accepted...

      I agree it would be nice if Congress would be bound by its own laws, but Conservatives would never stand for it.

      Until we take back our government, we will all continue to be screwed, whether from the "left" or from the "right".

      That's called an election. Otherwise, you're talking about eliminating the current Constitution.
        apl: Which means a union has zero power. Which means a union is useless. Which implies unions shouldn't exist.

        Not at all. They should have as much power as they can maintain by being better and more worthwhile than other groups (organized or not) of workers.

        samizdat: Until we take back our government, we will all continue to be screwed, whether from the "left" or from the "right".

        apl: That's called an election. Otherwise, you're talking about eliminating the current Constitution.


        While I agree that it may never happen without revolution, I'm not advocating one. I'm just saying that the Dems and GOPs have stacked the deck to favor themselves in many and varied and sometimes evil ways. I also acknowledge that they do it with the complacency (read: ignorant acceptance) of the possibility-challenged in our society.

        My answer isn't politics. Politics in America is mostly a lost cause, in the present world, for the reason I've just stated. I work to help kids grow up smarter and more self-responsible, in the hopes that they will be able to set aside the mindless drivel they are 'taught' by all the high-powered one-way media and 'education' of our culture.

        Don Wilde
        "There's more than one level to any answer."
      DrHyde's commentary is a good example of why union power can be a bad thing. He considers his personal powerlessness to be sufficient reason to disrupt a smoothly functioning system
      Did you lie deliberately there, or are you just stupid and incapable of reading?
      He reminds me of the nasties from Earth First or the Weathermen, who believed it is perfectly legitimate to murder to make a point.
      Ah, there's the answer to my question. You're a moron. Thanks for letting us know.
        Whew! You are correect (the first assumption, anyway). I remembered your nasty, vitriolic tone and read more into it than what you actually said. It was actually apl who discussed disrupting the means of production.

        As to the second point (?), I occasionally do make errors of fact and I usually apologize for them. Whether that makes me a "moron" is up to the perceiver and his system of semantic distinctions. In my perception of reality, somebody who drips verbal poison to the extent that you do isn't likely to live long enough to leave a positive legacy or very intelligent children, so in the bigger picture, I don't think I score so badly.

        Don Wilde
        "There's more than one level to any answer."
Re: Should Programmers Unionize?
by Win (Novice) on Jan 16, 2008 at 15:48 UTC
    Doctors are unionised. In the UK their union is called the BMA and it is probably one of the most powerful unions in the country.
Re: Should Programmers Unionize?
by Moriarty (Abbot) on Jan 17, 2008 at 10:47 UTC

    I've never been in a union and have no intentions of joining one now.

    I'm paid more than than the award, I get away with working short days, taking time off whenever I feel I need it and often working a little slower than I probably should, and I'm sure that there are other people that wouldn't last in a job if they did the same, but after almost 15 years, my employer seems to think that I'm valuable enough to let me get away with these things.

    How would being a member of a union benefit me?

      my employer seems to think that I'm valuable enough to let me get away with these things

      He lets you get away with those things because he knows damn well that he's ripping you off, anyway :-)

      How would being a member of a union benefit me?

      More money ... that's how.

      Cheers,
      Rob

        How is my employer ripping me off if I being paid above award rates? If anything, I'm ripping off my employer by not giving 100%

        Unions seem to be able to raise the award rates at times, but they won't do anything to raise the wages of those being paid above the award, which would mean that I would lose money if I were a member of a union.

Re: Should Programmers Unionize?
by zentara (Archbishop) on Jan 17, 2008 at 13:06 UTC
    Unions need political support from the top to be effective. The current administration has been emasculating unions for the last 8 years. So what would a union gain you, if the company fires everyone and rehires a new staff, or outsources overseas?

    Look at what happened to the Air Traffic Controllers, the newspaper unions in Detroit, etc. They went on strike, and were promptly destroyed, causing the loss of all their jobs.

    Only if the government support unions, are they effective...... like a law saying compamies can't outsource or wholesale fire entire staffs.

    Otherwise all unions do is tax your paycheck for dues, which go to creation of a corrupt union which usually ends up playing golf with management, conspiring on how to make you work harder for less..... they call it becoming more efficient.

    I'm from Detroit, and I've seen the rise and fall of unions. At first, they were pro-workers, but it peaked, and got to the point where the workers-cost started dragging down the corporations. Look at the retiree health-care issue in automotive industry. All the unions do now, is raise prices. This wouldn't be bad, in a socialized coutry; but in ruthless capitalist America........ they would rather put the National Guard in the street to keep order, than treat workers fairly.

    The only thing that seems to work, is to make employees owners in the companies by paying them with stock shares...... then a poorly performing employee is usually harrassed by fellow workers, because the poor performance is costing them value in their stock.

    For unions to work in the current political atmosphere, we would need a National Workers Union that can call a nation-wide shutdown, that would force the political establishment to deal with the problems. But look what happens in France.... not good. In America, the last great union hero, Jimmy Hoffa (who wanted a national workers union), disappeared mysteriously.


    I'm not really a human, but I play one on earth. Cogito ergo sum a bum
Re: Should Programmers Unionize? (Yes!)
by jZed (Prior) on Jan 17, 2008 at 18:28 UTC

    It seems to me that there are two separate things - the cultural definition and the economic definition. Culturally, I have to say I think we are white-collar. We're part of the intelligensia - we have our jobs because we were educated (not necessarily in computers) and because (most of us) grew up expecting to earn our livings with our brains or at least considered that a possibility. The poor and disenfranchised are obviously (to me at least) as capable of earning their livings with their brains as anyone else, but for a variety of reasons (the educational and economic at the front) *most* poor people don't grow up with that expectation.

    On the economic side a friend of mine (who happens to be a circuit court judge) said recently "Unions are a terrible idea except for the fact that letting corporations have complete control over peoples' livelihoods is an even worse idea." Microsoft and Oracle and Intel (and GE and GM etc.) do not have my best interests in mind either as a consumer or as a programmer. The minions of those corporations would be failing at their jobs if they were not working hard to make sure that you and I get paid as little as possible and still get them the workers and products they need. It is in their interest that we have as little choice as possible in what jobs we have. We've been lucky enough to be living in a time (at least in the U.S. and Europe) where having the skillz pays our billz. But the corporations are working to undo that by playing off programmers in the first world against programmers in the third world and when the dust settles this honeymoon in which we as programmers can often call the shots in the current market will be over.

    Are there corrupt and inefficient and ineffective unions, yes of course we all know that. But the same things can be said of any institutions - government, media, religion, etc.- they all pretty much suck in reality (sorry if that offends anyone). Because they have previously and currently suck doesn't mean we should abandon them or give up trying to make them work.

    Yes! We should have a software workers union. It should be strongly allied with the more general international open source movement and with the international union movemenets in other fields.

    There already is one such union I know of in the US. There is a branch of the Communications Workers of America for web designers and programmers. I don't know precisely who is or can be covered by it.

    Perl Programmers of the world untie! You have nothing to lose but your hashes!

Re: Should Programmers Unionize?
by dokkeldepper (Friar) on Jan 18, 2008 at 13:02 UTC
    There are two main reasons, why one should join a union. First reason, one works in an environment where the work is highly standardized and the result of this work is nearly independent from the skill level of the worker. Second reason, one works in an area that requires a high level of specialisation but where the skills are totally useless outside this specific area of expertise. Moreover, the employers themselfs are highly organized. Example for 1) traditional industries Example for 2) Teachers, pilots, rocket engineers Where would a programmer fit?
Re: Should Programmers Unionize?
by swampyankee (Parson) on Jan 21, 2008 at 15:33 UTC

    I tend to think that, overall, unions have been a good thing for US workers (all the current "rights" enjoyed by workers, such as vacations, weekends, overtime, and a finite work week were the result of union action; that they are being eroded is because of a political elite who feel that individual rights are trumped by corporate convenience). Of course, I currently believe that the one group of workers with the most powerful union is (US) corporate CEO's: their compensation is decided by boards that are under their influence, and usually consist of (shocker, this) other corporate CEO's.


    emc

    Information about American English usage here and here.

    Any Northeastern US area jobs? I'm currently unemployed.

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