On Labor Day, it's time to reflect about the nature of technical work. It can be enormous fun, or complete sucky. It can be enormously lucrative, or lead to abysmal unemployment. Technical workers can easily be exploited by management. Dilbert-like working conditions abound. Older workers can easily be shoved aside in favor of younger workers who can be paid less and work longer hours. The globalization of work and the relative ease of outsourcing work has the technical world in a race to the bottom. Open source is a great boon for the world but it drives down programmer salaries, and the net economic effects are that programmers around the world are subsidizing big companies with free labor. Software becomes a winner-take-all industry, which is great for the winners, but not so great for the also-rans, which is inevitably going to be most of us.
That's the downside, which very rarely gets talked about. The upside of course is that technology is in fact an extremely dynamic and productive industry, with a great variety of opportunities, etc. But technology cheerleading is so prevalent and tedious, that perhaps its time to take a look at the human downside of all those wonders. Today's a day for thinking about the 50-year old laid-off software developer who can't get hired, or those who have to pay California mortgages while competing with Indian salaries, or those with medical conditions that prevent them from working or getting insured, or other victims of life vicissitudes. There is so much lionization and hero worship in the technology industry, and so little attention paid to ordinary workers.
Stock options, the dream of starting your own company, and transitions to management all serve to keep the workforce from achieving the sort of class consciousness that would permit them to organize on their own behalf. Programmers think of themselves as independent-minded, and oftebn have been infected with libertarianism. They are probably the last occupation on earth that could be unionized. Like the children of Lake Woebegon, they all think they are above average and are going to come out on top in the winner-take-all competition, and don't have much patience with those who aren't winning the race.
Here are a few (very lame) efforts at getting programmers to organize on their own behalf:
Programmers-Union: a chat site that seems dead. Here are some typical reactions from libertarianish programmers.
Cyberlodge. Sponsored by a real union, the IAMAW. Tagline: "Fight Offshoring". They actually seem to have a tiny bit of a clue, but the site hasn't been updated since April.
Programmer's Guild: somewhat more alive, this is also function mainly as to lobby for increased protectionism of domestic jobs. "The Programmers Guild advances the interests of U.S. technical and professional workers in information technology (IT) fields, and opposes the transfer of U.S. jobs, technology, and infrastructure overseas." Here they are exposing a sleazy law firm giving advice to company HR departments on how to game H1-B regulations by place fake classified ads. That's a valuable sort of interest-group advocacy work, although a long way from collective bargaining.
Update: here's another one, The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, Communications Workers of America, Local 37083, AFL-CIO. This is the realest-looking one so far. h/t Wall Street Journal!
Would a programmer's union be a good thing, even if it was capable of getting off the ground? Probably not, at least not one that operated in the classical model. The tech industry is too distributed, entrepeneurial, and irregular to make such a thing workable. But that doesn't mean that tech workers can't start finding some common interests to organize around. Geeks are very effective when their interests are threatened, as organizations like the EFF, GNU, and Creative Commons show. But none of these address bread-and-butter economic issues, perhaps because geek culture is too young to have had to worry much about them. That will change.
[photo h/t: Happening Here]
[update: actual discussion of unions and the modern world happening here. I liked this comment:
the oft heard argument that "[name of multinational] moved its factories to China and Mexico. Therefore it is necessary to abandon unions" makes as much sense as "I had a lousy the Big Mac the other day. It is time to do away with restaurants."]