Is the IT workforce ripe for union membership? Recent splits in several large labor organizations, growing IT pessimism and the increasing strength of offshore outsourcing are fueling new efforts to attract information workers, insiders say.
There may be growing support among the workforce for such union representation. A union-backed survey released in late August revealed “increasing pessimism” among United States-based technology workers, who see less demand in the future for their skills.
“Clearly, the pixie dust for tech workers has worn off,” said Marcus Courtney, president of WashTech/CWA, the Seattle-based alliance of technology workers that organized the national survey.
“The industrys relentless downsizing, health care cost shifting, job exporting and visa importing strategies are causing tech workers to be less optimistic about their futures in one of Americas most important industries.”
The survey examined workers perceptions of their futures. Between 2003 and 2005, the survey demonstrated, there was a significant decrease in IT worker optimism. Two years ago, 65 percent of respondents said they believed that there would be increased demand for tech workers. Today, only 54 percent of those surveyed had that response.
In addition, the survey notes that while the economy has been in a recovery since November 2001, the upward movement has not really changed conditions for American workers.
Labor leaders are taking note. James Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, took the dais in late June at a union convention, and railed against the globalization of the economy by U.S. companies.
“The 40-hour work week is under attack. The right to organize is under attack. We are fighting for retirement security. Fifty million Americans are without health care. And real wages are falling,” Hoffa said.
Though this rhetoric rings like the standard stump speech for a labor union leader, its intended audience was not: information workers in the enterprise and other highly educated professionals. “We represent workers from A to Z—airline pilots to zookeepers, all 1.4 million members,” Hoffa said.
To union leaders, the workers in blue- and white-collar industries face similar issues.
Analysts said new moves are brewing to organize IT professionals here in the United States and overseas. Computer programmers, database administrators and network administrators, may, to a casual observer, be unlikely targets of unionizing efforts. They are generally well-educated, and often earn significant incomes.
“But unionization is not necessarily education-related,” said Don Schroeder, a labor law attorney with Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo P.C. of Boston.
“Doctors in New Jersey a few years ago tried to unionize, saying that the HMO was their employer. They lost that case. But that is just one example of unions attempting to organize white-collar workers. And that will continue in the future.”
There are already organizing efforts underway at one of Americas most prominent computer industry companies—IBM. According to a statement on the Web site of TechsUnite.org, there is an organizing committee called Alliance@IBM, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America union, that has already had an impact on the companys policies.
“Weve accomplished a lot,” Garrett Lanzy, an IBM advisory software engineer based at Endicott, N.Y., said in a statement. “We have pressured IBM into withdrawing some of its pension changes, generated Congressional hearings and held seminars educating employees on their rights.”
Lanzy said many ask him why he does not just leave IBM if he is so unhappy with the company. His response, he said, is that working conditions are similar all across the high tech industry.
Analysts said working conditions are likely to stay the same—at least for many technology companies for the short term.
George Black, president and CEO of RSA Corp., a Houston-based IT management firm, said that the “commoditization” of IT labor is a reality that college-educated workers must acknowledge.
“The commoditization of IT labor by Fortune 500 companies will foster the growth of union activity,” Black told Ziff Davis Internet. “Price controls and margin controls are forcing providers of contract IT personnel to establish non-benefited classes of employees. IBM Global Services has created such a class it calls supplemental. Supplemental employees get no benefits, no participation in 401-K programs, no profit sharing. They are not protected in any way.”
Whats more, Black said, these contract workers must leave IBMs employ after only one year in order to avoid co-employment issues. “This growing class is going to be fertile ground for union organization,” Black said.
Unions Target Outsourcing
At the same time, there is turmoil in several large unions. Several unions in July broke away from the AFL-CIO, one of the worlds largest labor unions. Union officials said at the time they are trying to identify jobs that cannot be shipped overseas, in industries with workers that can be organized.
Rather than seeing labors power as diminished by the fractiousness of the AFL-CIO, some business leaders see the move as a potential challenge for corporations in the near future.
“A driving force behind the AFL-CIO split is the splintering unions decision to focus resources on organizing employees, rather than on the AFL-CIO bureaucracy,” Charles Birenbaum, a labor lawyer with the San Francisco office of Winston & Strawn LLP, told Ziff Davis Internet. “Those unions will now concentrate resources in an unprecedented manner to increase union membership density.”
Birenbaum said unions will increasingly use non-traditional tactics to organize companies, including legislative programs, regulatory pressure, PR campaigns, boycotts and lawsuits.
“Rather than simply ignoring these campaigns, businesses should be exploring their options and devising comprehensive defensive strategies,” he said.
Last year, unionized workers represented 12.5 percent of the American workforce, down slightly from 12.9 percent in 2003, according to research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a unit of the U.S. Department of Labor. Union membership has declined from a “high of 20.1 percent” in 1983, the government said.
Outsourcing, however, is expected to grow in the coming years. According to research from OffshoreITOutsourcing.com, software outsourcing is starting to transform the industry, and major Fortune 500 companies are engaging in the tactic. IT, overall, is the leading occupation to be outsourced, beating sales and marketing and human resources, according to outsourcing watchers.
According to an August survey by consulting company McKinsey & Co., India led the world in outsourcing, grabbing $20 billion in contracts in 2004. China was runner up with $600 million, the report said, but is expanding its offering of workers for software, hardware, semiconductors and programming services.
One of the problems with organizing IT workers is that they are usually not concentrated in one office, but rather, they connect with companies and managers via the Internet from a diverse array of sometimes obscure locations. While that decentralization makes traditional organizing techniques difficult, unions now are using the tools of the IT industry to organize, such as e-mail and Web communities.
The governments National Labor Relations Board, which arbitrates work actions, has ruled that it was permissible for union organizers to reach workers by e-mail at the workplace. “Employees are protected,” labor attorney Schroeder said. “This may be the tool to organize contract workers.”