Why IT Workers Should Unionize

There is power in a union for the information technology industry, one of The Atlantic's own developers argues, even though programmers often resist collective organizing

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The dream of the Internet as a libertarian oasis is firmly planted in the eyes of a million computer programmers. The mantra that "information wants to be free" is the gateway to utopia. When information is free, then power is wrested from the gatekeepers of knowledge. Anyone can become enlightened. All the tools are there and readily available. And, you can become rich in the process.

With a firm grasp on rationality and a computer, anyone can enter into the information technology industry. Access to jobs is not decided by bureaucracies and old-boy networks, but is instead grounded in a true merit-based society.

To a certain extent this depiction is accurate. Many people have made fortunes in the computer industry. But there is a dark side. For every dot-com millionaire, there are most likely a thousand IT employees that will never see an IPO. These are the workers that struggle as contractors and freelancers, often without benefits or job security.

Maybe there's something inherent to computer programming that creates and reinforces ardent individualism.

While a highly sought dream job designing video games might offer an employee the chance to create something of worth, it might also involve incredibly stressful, hundred-hour work weeks hunched over a cathode ray tube without overtime pay.

Certainly, the gross salary for information technology positions can be generous, but that salary can be heavily garnished -- sometimes up to 50 percent of the total paycheck -- by staffing firms and headhunters that many companies rely on for HR needs. Then there are the other miscellaneous pitfalls of the less-than-ideal information technology job: non-compete clauses, few long-term career paths and demands to stay current on new technologies or risk being replaced by someone significantly younger.

In other professions, issues like pay, career trajectory and job security were addressed by forming unions, but those drawn to the IT sector have been resistant to this approach. Unions are often seen as emblematic of the bureaucracies of the past. The idea that some complex process could stand in the way of independent accomplishment is anathema to the fundamentals of the libertarian, self-made, DIY, hacker culture.

However, technology and engineering unions do exist. WashTech represents a portion of Microsoft employees. Alliance@IBM, possibly one of the oldest computer technology unions, represents IBM employees. Then there's IEEE for electrical engineers, which has some union-like characteristics, the Programmer's Guild aimed at bettering the programmer profession and the Freelancer's Union for those technical workers who operate on their own. But these groups represent a tiny fraction of the total workforce. Out of the approximate 3,000,000 tech workers in the United States, maybe 5,000 in total are union members. Compare this to coverage of other highly-skilled trade unions, like the Screen Actor's Guild or the American Federation of Teachers, both of which currently represent the majority of employees in those occupations.

So why are tech nerds reluctant to organize? Maybe there's something inherent to computer programming that creates and reinforces ardent individualism. Or maybe the addictive appeal of completing intellectually challenging work on a daily basis is reward enough that compensation becomes an afterthought.

But technology workers' hesitance to unionize is not purely a reflection of their personalities, but also likely a consequence of the disregard for unions and technology in the era following the Air Traffic Controllers Strike of 1981.

Air traffic control is a good example of a profession with highly-skilled, technology workers serving in critical positions. When the air traffic controllers refused to work in 1981, citing long, stressful hours for uneven pay, they brought the entirety of the airline industry down with them.

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Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones is a Washington, D.C.-based writer whose work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, Morning News, Washington City Paper, and the Awl.

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