A More Perfect (IT) Union

Actors' guild may be a good model for potential IT workers' union.

My recent column on the disconnect between the claims of large technology companies that there is a shortage of qualified IT workers and the simple fact that there are tens of thousands of qualified and experienced workers out there looking for jobs received a ton of responses. I heard from readers who have lost jobs and have yet to get new ones, as well as from those still in a job but fearing its future security.

All the responses I received were angry about the current situation in technology employment and pessimistic that companies will start to hire experienced workers without any outside prodding or influence. Many of the responses also brought up a potential solution, one that has often been discussed but also is seen as highly unlikely to occur: unionization for IT workers and developers.

Like many of you out there, whenever I hear anyone bring up the idea of a technology union I think, "Interesting, but it wont ever happen."

Part of the problem is the nature of developers and IT workers. They often are disorganized, highly individualistic, almost artistlike workers who move from job to job and arent looking for the long-term plant security that is the hallmark of traditional unions. There have been several recent efforts to organize using methods based on everything from classic craft worker associations to open-source models to loose industry associations, but none has gained any traction that Ive seen.

However, there is something going on right now that could change the current dynamic and actually point the way to a successful technology worker union.

As I write this column, actors who provide the voices for popular video games have voted to go on strike. These actors, who are members of the powerful Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, have noticed that video games are big business and are fighting to get a share of the sales of the popular games they work on in the form of residuals. And its a testament to the power of groups like SAG, which is used to going up against giant media companies, that the video game producers are paying attention.

But another group—the developers and other technology workers who actually built the games in question—are paying even more attention. These workers are thinking to themselves, "Wait a second: I put in 80-hour weeks for six months building this game, and someone who spent 8 hours doing voice work gets residuals while I dont?" The fact that the game companies are paying attention at all to the voice actors demands clearly has gotten the game developers thinking that maybe there really is power in a union.

And it happens to work out that the actors guilds may be a much better model for developers and IT workers than classic labor unions. In both cases, you have a widely distributed work force that moves from job to job and is highly individualistic, artistic and disorganized.

The video game companies realize this, and thats why they are sweating bullets. They know that success by the actors unions will lead to developers and technology workers asking for their own share and that, just maybe, they will finally organize to make their demands more compelling.

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Thats why the companies are talking tough and not giving in to the voice actors. Theyve threatened to go to nonunion actors and have stated that no one buys a video game for the voice acting. But they might want to be careful there. Do they really want to spend tens of millions of dollars to build a fantastic and interactive spy game, only to have it ruined by a cheesy Russian accent from a high-school drama teacher?

No matter which way this battle goes, the IT workers in the video game industry are getting an up-close look at what a union can do, and, in this case, its a union that is actually a good model for developers and technology workers. I certainly wont be surprised if these workers have already started to lay the groundwork for a video game technology workers guild.

And if that does happen, its only a small step to a much broader developer and IT union.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.

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