IT Unions Would Do More Harm Than Good

Unions are coming to IT-whether we like it or not. We should fear the worst.

Unions are coming to IT—whether we like it or not. We should fear the worst. This is not necessarily to say that Im against unions; after all, my forebears were staunch advocates, and I inherited at least a partial belief in the effectiveness of unions.

There are now, however, far too many negative connotations. Unions have gotten too powerful and have upset the flow of business without necessarily protecting workers rights.

The poor public-relations face that union representatives have put on in many cases has probably contributed to the waning power of union bargaining and of union membership.

We are, however, seeing a return of unionization in strange places. The most interesting development has been in the medical and academic fields. Grad students who feel theyre taken advantage of as teachers assistants ridiculously think they need to unionize. Doctors, with the backing of the American Medical Association, have decided to unionize to take on massive HMOs.

The trend toward unionizing IT is also coming on very strong, and that has me worried. First, union ripples formed at Amazon.coms distribution centers. Then workers at a dot-com called eTown won a petition two weeks ago to vote on a union. eTown, of course, is a San Francisco company that worked its employees nearly to death while attempting to pay them in stock that ultimately became worthless.

The timing is ripe for IT unionization. Its very much an IT employees market, and IT employees work incredibly long hours, often in amazingly bad conditions. The stress level is high, and though many IT people get paid excellent salaries, many others do not. There are also salary inequities that need to be overcome, especially concerning women and minority IT workers. Unionization, in other words, will happen, and Im not sure were prepared for it.

Unions could solve some of our short-term IT labor problems. But, over the long haul, unionization of IT will hurt us, since unions tend to sacrifice innovation for these temporary benefits. Unions reduce IT workers to assembly-line professionals, something that should scare the wits out of anyone who grew up in the computer industry.

Correction: I worded a sentence poorly in my last column on the Intel P4 and Rambus. There are no timing problems with Rambus memory. Engineers at the motherboard companies had difficulties getting RDRAM integrated into their motherboards, leading to their own yield problems.