Monday, September 03, 2007

Programming as Labor

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."


TGGP said...

the oft heard argument that "[name of multinational] moved it's 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."
I think the implication is supposed to be that more unionization will lead to more outsourcing.

How do unions plan on fighting outsourcing? It seems like the third world is out of their reach of influence.

mtraven said...

Short answer: protectionism. Whether this is practical is unclear. I'm not sure it would be practical even if the unions were politically strong, which they most certainly aren't.

In practice, their current efforts are limited to things like pushing for H1-B reform, passing laws requiring state agencies to contract domestically, etc.

The longer term and even more impractical solution is to organize workers in the third world as well. They don't call it International Workers of the World for nothing!

Anonymous said...

I.W.W., stands for INDUSTRIAL Workers of the World, though they fight for the interests of workers around the world.

Here is a link to an article about this very misconception.

I would agree that the union would have an interest in fighting for all workers everywhere, including those seeking H1-B visas. What makes them attractive is not in making up for supposed shortages, but in undercutting able worker's wages.

These people would have an interest in joining too, because of the ease in which their boss can exploit them. As soon as they've served their purpose or become too expensive they get dumped like the rest of us.

No one is immune from the crushing exploitation of capitalist production.

Anonymous said...

There are some more organizations. There’s alliance@ibm, which is a worker’s organization that has international alliances. Also, there are a few big companies with unions, but not for programmers or engineers – military tech companies, AT&T, and some international telecom companies.

The idea that programmer’s cannot be organized is belies the fact that programmers are good at organizing things. That’s our job! Part time programmers have organized the Free Software movement, and the Open Source development methods. We can coordinate and organize.

Additionally, there are unions for others with similar skill levels. Nurses are organized (and get paid better than us). A small fraction of doctors are unionized. There are unions for artists, graphic artists, animators, and illustrators. The animator’s union even sets minimum wages. There are other reasons why there are few to no unions. To enumerate some of them:

1. The H1B, and American programmer friction with this program.
2. The relatively small size of tech companies.
3. Political ideology (war technologies, libertarian ideology).
4. High salaries, job hopping.
5. Companies are virulently anti-union, when they can be.

These aren’t necessarily deal breakers:

1. The H1B makes it hard to organize, because the guest workers sometimes are seen as “enemies”. Companies have used our own racism against us for over a century, and they’re doing it with the H1B. The solution with a history of success solution has always been to bring the immigrants and guest workers into the union first, then deal with the program later. Doing this will take some convincing leadership.

2. There are a lot of small companies, and a few big ones: Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, CA. But this is changing, in a big way, as tech merges with media. Fox purchased MySpace, Microsoft is moving into media, Yahoo and Google are fat, and media companies are moving into tech. Video games are media as well as tech. There are established media unions organizing right in the face of tech, and there’s always the threat of programmers being organized.
Then again, Disney is a tech company, with unions, and the programmers there don’t seem to be organized.

3. This will change with the constant “proletarianization” of technical work, particularly for sysadmins. Unix hackers like to sneer at the Microsoft admins, because they memorize how to click buttons, and don’t know how to program. These exploited sysadmins can form the base of an organizing effort because they are underpaid and constantly seeing their jobs deskilled. Their hours are long, and they don’t have access to the traditional, theoretical computer science education. The more elite hackers need to form an alliance here.

4. A transient workforce is always a challenge. One way to deal is to make a union that’s more like a skilled crafts union than a labor union, but have both high-skill and low-skill jobs represented in the union. Electrical workers, carpenters, plaster workers, and other in the construction trades are organized like this. These guys aren’t geniuses, or even what you might call “gifted” but they do set standards, offer training and education, and represent different skill levels of workers. Also, some of the unions seek out work for their members, taking the role of agent and “taking care” of their members. Travelling workers have to check in with the union, and wait for work.

5. Big companies are often anti-union, often because they have some unions in the company that are difficult to work with. In these situations, the programmers have to be just as militant, to be able to get their union. It’s a challenge.

On the other hand, there are some workplaces where the union cooperates with the company. In these situations, it’s even harder to organize, because the programmers won’t see the advantage of a union – the unions already there don’t do much for their members, and the unionized workers aren’t raising wages.

Anonymous said...

I've got some more labor links at my blog:

Mike Landis said...

If you consider employing people in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Beijing, Shanghai, etc. to build products for American and European markets to be undesirable when real unemployment is high, I suggest that government require employers to PROVE that they cannot find qualified people for each H-1B position applied for. Employers could be required to setup a Human Resource tracking system where all job postings and resumes received are collected and code signed with strong public-private encryption (employers not having both keys). The H-1B visa application process should include a hearing in front of an administrative law judge with access to the full warehouse store. If the case is compelling, it's a rubber stamp proceeding. If not, the petition should be denied.

Tax credits for hiring citizens and import tariffs have both been discussed, though I doubt either get any serious attention in Congress. H-1B visas provide a 25% discount for hiring foreign workers. On a position that the employer claims commands a $60k salary for an American (which in the real world is probably $90k), the employer can legally offer the position to a guest worker for $45k, thus ostensibly saving $15k annually based on their representation of market economics, in reality a 50% ($45k) annual savings. Such cost differentials put Obama's $3k one time tax credit for hiring a citizen to shame. Any employer that supports that plan is hoping voters haven't read the guest worker visa provisions. The guest worker is happy because jobs in Hyderabad don’t pay anything like $45k.

In the past, American workers could go back to school and get a masters degree or a doctorate, thereby improving their value to employers. However, given that there is NO CAP whatsoever on H-1B visas issued to candidates with a graduate degree or higher, American workers face a nearly limitless supply of discounted labor. Any American that already works for a large software company can improve their chances of competing with their American peers by adding a graduate degree, but Americans who are not already employed at such a firm thereby make themselves unemployable. Mentioning the advanced degree puts them in competition with foreign workers that represent a 50% savings over hiring a citizen. Not mentioning the advanced degree makes them non-competitive against existing American workers already working at that employer. The smart answer for the unemployed with advanced degrees is to get an MBA, a medical or law degree, or drive a truck, i.e. exit the software labor force.

If government is going to take any meaningful action to improve the odds that citizens will find employment in the software sector in the presence of an H-1B program, it’s going to be in concert with a tax on employers that build products overseas and import either products or labor to build said products for sale to domestic markets. Without threatening free trade, it would seem that the only rational approach to protecting indigenous labor would be to measure total revenue and labor costs (including benefits) below management level in every Business Unit (BU) that tracks its own profit & loss. If the BU’s American market revenues vs. the labor cost exceeds a certain ratio, the feds would collect a tax. If the computed ratio falls short of a proscribed ratio, the BU would get a tax credit. Assume that the total of all penalties levied is approximately equal to the sum of all credits granted, except that the feds must pay their administrative overhead (possibly plus some extra cash to bring down the deficit). The target ratio would be set by analyzing revenue and labor costs at employers that don’t employ guest workers – generally those too small to justify the overhead associated with outsourcing or directly hiring guest workers. Companies that employ no foreign workers and those that sell no products to the domestic economy would be exempted from the tax and credit program.

Sixty senators supported the current H-1B visa program. Their next bid for re-election should go down to defeat and we should start wrapping semi-trailers with huge banners that say: “No H-1B visas” or something catchy that promotes the labor vs. revenue Robin Hood tax and credit program I described above.