By: James Mathewson
September 2, 2002
Though I generally
consider myself a liberal, I have to confess that I am anti-union.
The current baseball mess is my paradigm case as to why I think
unions are typically unnecessary. As Major League billionaires fight
down to the wire over what one management source calls "microcosms,"
a work stoppage threatens my beloved game yet again. As a Minnesota
Twins fan, the threat is particularly nail biting: A strike could
not only wipe out the team's best regular season since 1965, it
also would likely doom the team to contraction. The thought that
I've heard Herb Carneal call his last game brings tears to my eyes.
as I write this, it appears MLB will avoid a strike this time around,
which would give me reason to celebrate on this Labor Day. It also
gives me cause to examine whether unions are necessary in high tech.
Analysts have stewed over the issue since 2000, when dot-commers
toiled night and day, ultimately for worthless stock options. Though
I'm anti-union, I had some sympathy for the union arguments at the
time. In general, I believe unions are necessary only when a new
kind of commerce springs up (e.g., the Industrial Revolution). In
these cases, labor laws lag behind ethical standards of fair employee
treatment. Once the laws catch up, unions become an unnecessary
drag on the economic prospects of workers. In the case of dot-commers,
laws hadn't caught up to a higher standard of stock option use (they
still haven't). So there might still be some cause for dot-com unions.
But, what happens when the law catches up to stock option use and
dot-commers are stuck paying for a union whose purpose is redundant
to the law?
is, once unions get a toehold in a particular industry, they often
run amuck and damage the industry's ability to be profitable and
hire and pay workers. In those cases, they can do more harm than
good to workers' prospects in those industries. I would argue that
the MLB union is doing just that by refusing to enable small-market
owners to make enough money to pay all but the top 5 percent of
ball players. And a strike would take more dollars out of the pockets
of ballplayers by turning away the customers who ultimately pay
their salaries. It would be especially harmful to the veteran role
players who have to audition for jobs every year.
The most recent
cause celebre on the high-tech union front comes from IBM. Big Blue
has a culture of unpaid overtime that workers have gladly taken
on because of its complementary culture of IBM lifers. If you are
hired at IBM for a permanent full-time position, the understanding
is you are hired for life, barring a major screw-up or a breakdown.
You pay for this tenure with long hours, and most techies would
take the trade-off. But when IBM announced it would lay off tens
of thousands of its IT lifers, the remaining workers started talking
about getting unionized. The question is, what would happen to companies
like IBM if their techies all joined a union? Would it be good for
the techies in the long run?
Here's one scenario
that might make IBMers think twice about making Big Blue a union
shop. When IBM is forced by a union to either pay for overtime or
send techies home on time, development will obviously get more expensive
for the company. As margins decrease, investors will call for cost
cutting, which will involve more layoffs. IBM's board will also
pressure management to use cheaper labor so that it can continue
necessary development at a lower cost. This means it will hire more
H-1B visa workers and build programming houses over in India. The
net result is a lot fewer available jobs for U.S. IT workers. As
in baseball, the top talent will be retained and will benefit from
shorter hours. But the middle tier of IT workers will have a harder
time finding work.
What do you
think about IT unions? Send your thoughts to email@example.com.
IT Unions? II
By: James Mathewson
September 16, 2002
I received a
flood of very intelligent responses to my Sept. 2 column on unions
in IT. The vast majority of the responses disagreed with my general
attitude against unions. This surprised me at first, because I thought
unions were anathema to the generally conservative viewpoint of
our readership. But an article in the UpFront section of this week's
BusinessWeek indicates an error in my thinking. A couple of labor-sponsored
polls show a reversal of popular opinion toward labor since the
Reagan era. According to the AFL-CIO, where the ratio of those who
oppose unions to those who support them in this country stood at
70/30 in the mid '80s, it's now at 40/50 (with many more undecideds
than in the Reagan years). Just last year, the ratio stood at 50/40.
The story cited management malfeasance as the cause of a recent
reversal of public opinion. Just the employees of Enron and WorldCom
who lost their entire retirement savings at the hands of their employers
could make a dent in the ratio.
the relative popularity of unions was not my only error. Several
of your arguments helped me understand the concept of unions better,
and helped me come up with a more informed opinion. Several of you
pointed out that executive greed drives companies to pump their
own stock into employee pension plans; the same greed drives executives
to lay off workers if there is any indication of not meeting their
numbers in a given quarter; and if executives don't behave in these
ways, their boards and shareholders will insist that they do. Without
unions, there is no complementary mechanism to protect workers from
this behavior. So to rail against the very idea of unions is akin
to endorsing behavior that has cost hundreds of thousands of U.S
workers their livelihoods in the last two years.
am not absolutely anti-union or absolutely pro-union. The only opinion
I hold absolutely is the denial of absolutist thinking. Few things
are absolutely true; if they are, they are either unprovable or
not worth saying. The issue is not whether unions are appropriate
in some circumstances but rather, in what circumstances they are
appropriate. My argument was that unions are not needed in cases
where the law makes it a crime for management to force workers into
dangerous, degrading, or demeaning conditions either on the job
or after retirement. The best responses to this argument again come
from readers. Tom Harnsberger, a union firefighter for 19 years,
explains that unions are needed to lobby for laws that enhance the
safety of workers. He says that without his union insisting on safe
practices on the job, he may not be alive today. There is no better
paradigm argument for unions to protect the safety of workers than
in the firefighting profession, especially with the solemn ceremonies
that commemorated the 9/11 tragedy in the past week.
augment Harnsbarger's argument about the need for union legal protection,
not just to lobby for new laws but to represent workers in cases
where management has violated existing laws. Enron shows us how
money can buy laws that enhance the bottom line, sometimes at the
expense of employees. Without unions to act as the legal arm of
employees, there is no counterbalancing force to represent workers
in Washington and in the courtroom. Sure, employees can file class-action
suits and whatnot, but without union organization in the background,
they do so at considerable risk to their own livelihoods. Whistleblowers
often end up on the streets.
OK, so unions
are necessary to protect workers from illegal corporate behavior
and to push for laws that enhance the safety and well-being of workers.
Does this also apply to the IT ranks? IT workers are not exactly
firefighters or coal miners. One of my colleagues pointed out that
nobody forced dot-com workers to slave over their keyboards for
low salaries all for the promise of stock options. They decided
to become partners with management in striving to make a killing
in e-commerce. There were less risky jobs available at the time
if they wanted to make money the old-fashioned way. So even when
I expressed a pro-union stance, it was misinformed.
But in these
supposedly less risky jobs, such as at IBM, is there room for unions?
There are some areas where IT workers conditions could improve.
Enron shows us that we need laws to ensure proper 401K and pension
management. OSHA released ergonomic guidelines last year that have
yet to gain widespread acceptance because of management's resistance.
Whether a particular company treats its employees with the dignity
they deserve in spite of the absence of laws will depend on the
company. IBM is one of the best companies to work for in terms of
giving employees the latest and greatest workstations, employee
stability, and retirement plans. Even so, readers who work for IBM
say there is cause for unions, if only to protect the rank and file
against layoffs in a management-heavy environment.
Given the pendulum
swing in popular opinion and high-profile cases like Enron and WorldCom,
I would not be surprised if unions make inroads into IT. If they
do, I can no longer say it would be a net negative, as I indicated
two weeks ago. Though it may force more off-shore IT development,
it will at least guarantee dignified employment for the cream of
the crop in the United States.
is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com
Copyright © 2002 ComputerUser.com Inc.