IT Workers on Way to Joining Unions?

 
 
By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2002-08-05
 
 
 

In 1933, with the country in the grip of an economic depression and millions of Americans unemployed, President Franklin D. Roosevelts administration pushed through Congress the National Labor Relations Act, which, among other things, gave workers the right to organize and negotiate with employers. Union membership soared.

Whats going on today in the IT industry cant really be compared to the depth and scope of economic dislocation in the 1930s. Still, plenty of IT professionals are feeling the pinch. IT salaries—for the first time in memory—are sliding. And the number of employed IT workers in the United States fell by more than 500,000 last year, according to the Information Technology Association of America.

The unrelenting hailstorm of IT bankruptcies, layoffs and hiring freezes has begun to breathe a bit of life into an idea that, not too long ago, would have seemed about as likely as a spam-free in-box: unions for IT pros. Nobody has numbers on how many IT workers are joining unions nationally or globally. And few, if any, IT shops in the United States are fully unionized today. Still, with IT pros worried more than ever about job security and falling salaries, union representatives report that their phones have been ringing off the hook.

"We probably added 20 percent of our membership in the last couple of months," said Linda Guyer, union president of Alliance@IBM and a project manager in the software division of IBMs Endicott, N.Y., site. Alliance@ IBM, formed in 1999, now represents about 5,000 out of some 120,000 IBM workers in the United States.

Another IT-focused union, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, a Seattle-based organization of high-tech workers and the local affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, in June posted its single-highest level of monthly member recruitment to date. WashTech has 250 members who pay dues of $120 a year and a subscriber list of 1,700, according to WashTech Editor Mike Blain. And the Programmers Guild, a Summit, N.J., group, has seen its membership climb to 1,246 programmers since its June 2001 inception.

What does union membership do for IT workers, besides take membership fees out of their pockets? The answer depends largely on which country you live in. IT unions tend to be stronger in Europe. But even in the United States, unions are claiming an increasing impact. In a widely reported incident, Amazon.com Inc. in February 2001 backed off on plans to force laid-off employees to sign separation agreements containing nondisparagement clauses to get severance benefits after WashTech publicized the terms of the severance agreements and after workers organizing at Amazon under WashTech picketed. That occurred even though WashTech isnt officially recognized as a bargaining agent for Amazon workers.

Still, resistance to unions among IT pros persists. One subtle disincentive for IT workers has been the long-held impression that unions are blue-collar bastions—something for auto-assembly-line or textile workers, not software engineers or system analysts.

"Some workers in this industry see themselves as being on the cutting edge of technology and associate unions with blue-collar workers," said Ruth Milkman, director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California at Los Angeles.

But, say IT union officials, that impression is beginning to break down. "We get the job titles of people who join [Alliance@IBM], and youd be surprised," said Guyer. "Theyre in all types of jobs ... programmers, engineers, scientists." Indeed, when IBM two months ago laid off about 160 scientists from its two research sites in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., Alliance@IBM got a miniflood of membership applications from Ph.D.s, Guyer said.

Still, this miniflood hasnt impressed IT employers. "There are small activities, like WashTech. ... And IBM had a couple of issues [with] changes in pension plans," said Harris Miller, president of the ITAA, in Arlington, Va. "But even within those two organizations, traction is relatively small."

One thing that may push U.S. IT workers to join unions is that unions are helping IT workers in countries that have strong labor movements. A case in point: Hewlett-Packard Co. must jump through hoops before it can lay off 5,900 Europeans. In both France and Germany, HP is required to secure approval of layoff plans from work councils before any IT worker loses his or her job. That approval wont come easily. In mid-July, about 300 Compaq Computer Corp. employees staged anti-HP rallies in German cities.

Will these examples help push U.S. IT workers to unionize? They cant hurt, although organizers said the going will be slow. But the organizers say they can wait. "It took women 100 years to get the vote," said Alliance@IBMs Guyer. "Just because it takes a long time doesnt mean you give up."

IT Careers Managing Editor Lisa Vaas is at lisa_vaas@ziffdavis.com.

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