Technology workers of the world, unite!

SILICON PRAIRIE, Illinois, June 2 -- The American labor movement has seen better days.  Union membership is at a historical low, with fewer than 10% of private-sector employees belonging to unions.   In the technology industry, that number is probably closer to zero.

Yet technology workers could benefit from organizing and exercising some collective bargaining power.  I'm not just talking about manufacturing and shipping -- I'm talking about programmers, QA engineers, network and system administrators, and the people who produce software and make computers and networks run.

Mention the very idea of a labor union to most white-collar workers, and they're likely to laugh at you.  "We're professionals," they'll tell you, "we don't need a union.  Unions are for working stiffs, not for people who work with their brains!"

That's a lot of hooey.  People who work in the software business could benefit from banding together, comparing notes, and refusing to let management take advantage of them.  If you don't think so, I've got a real-life example for you (the names have been omitted, to protect the guilty).

A small software company in the Chicago area -- we'll call them XYZ --  had built a pretty successful business, developing a niche-market application targeted to a particular industry.  Business was good, and XYZ was selling a lot of software.  The three executives who'd started the company, some 20 years ago, were raking in some pretty hefty profits.  The company was growing at a healthy clip, increasing in size at the rate of at least 25% a year.

Despite all this money coming in, however, management kept the treasury on a pretty short leash.  It was like pulling teeth, trying to get them to approve software upgrades, training classes, better-than-average office supplies, and so forth.  And, most important, salaries were low -- some 15-20% below the industry average for a given job.

As is no secret, the software industry is in a major boom period right now -- possibly surpassing the one that occurred in the early and mid-1980s.  Companies are having trouble hiring people to fill jobs, especially in engineering.  I've already argued that part of this is due to the downsizing fad of the '90s (see Staffing crisis? What staffing crisis?, May 5), which has caused a lot of people to prefer consulting to salaried work.  But an equally important factor is that a lot of companies have simply failed to respond to the short supply of engineering talent by offering more money.  Executives with six- and seven-figure incomes of their own can't seem to stomach the idea of paying a programmer, customer support analyst, or technical writer a decent salary.  So open jobs go begging, and existing staff turn tail and run to whoever is willing to pay what they're worth.

Back to XYZ.  At a staff meeting one day, the engineering manager made a huge tactical error.  "We've been trying to hire a couple of programmers," he told his staff.  "But the unemployment rate in the software industry is pretty close to zero right now, so the only way you can hire someone is to hire them away from another company."  This was tantamount to telling his subordinates, "Hey guys, it's open season.  Go out there and get what you can!"

So that's exactly what the staff did.  Various members of the engineering department started getting together for informal "union meetings" every afternoon, comparing notes on the treatment they were getting from management.  Typical discussion topic: "I asked them for a raise, but they told me, `The salary range for a company this size is from X to Y, and if we give you more than that, we'd be out of range.'  What a bunch of nonsense!"

Eventually, a few people started looking for greener pastures -- which is easy to do these days, simply by posting a resume on one of the many job-related Web sites out there (for example, Net Temps or DICE).  A couple of people left XYZ for higher-paying consulting work.  When an employee would give notice, XYZ would typically make a counteroffer, but still wouldn't match the consulting firm's salaries.  One employee was told, "We could pay you that figure, but it wouldn't be in your best interest."  I'm not making this up -- that's what they told him.  It didn't take that engineer long to head for the hills.

Over the course of 6-8 months, almost the entire XYZ engineering department left the company for higher-paying work.  This happened because they organized themselves, got together, compared salaries, and collectively decided they deserved better treatment (pay and otherwise) than they were getting from XYZ.  This is pretty much what unions do -- the informal XYZ "union" was a highly successful operation -- but I'm sure if you asked any of the XYZ engineers if they think they'd benefit from union membership, they'd probably just laugh.

Unions have acquired a reputation for being stodgy, outdated, overfed bureaucracies that oversee workers who watch the clock all day, when they're not reading newspapers at their desks and taking 15-minute smoking breaks every hour.  And let's face it: some of the biggest labor unions haven't exactly fostered productivity and efficiency in the workplace.  But the XYZ example illustrates the upside of labor organization -- it enables workers to share information and exercise their market power to get their share of the huge corporate profits that have driven the Dow Jones Industrial Average to the 9,000 mark and fattened the bank accounts of executives and stockholders from coast to coast.

Sharing salary information is a taboo, fostered by management -- largely because when you know the guy at the next desk is making 20% more than you are for doing the same job, you're going to get upset.  Keeping salaries a secret may be a good way of keeping underpaid employees happy -- but from the worker's point of view, the more information is made public, the better off everyone is -- at least, the people who actually work for the company.  At XYZ, the result was a bunch of engineering staff departing for bigger bucks.  I wonder what would happen if you tried the same thing at your company?

Copyright © 1998 John J. Kafalas

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