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


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.

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.

It was an illegal strike but one that the workers thought would appeal to populist sentiment. The union assumed that they had an ally in Reagan, who was a lifelong union member with the Screen Actors Guild and came to office with labor backing. But Reagan flipped the script. He immediately fired all 11,345 air traffic controllers following a half-hearted attempt at negotiation, then he blacklisted all the former workers and brought in a ready team of replacements. Flights were back running in a matter of days.

Abandoned by the President, with minimal support from the public or related industry groups like the FAA, the union was left looking feckless. Compare this basic situation to the effects of the Railroad Strike of 1877. When railroad workers struck in Martinsburg, West Virginia, for higher pay in 1877, traffic was brought to a halt for weeks. The country flocked to the defense of striking workers; riots spread across Philadelphia, Saint Louis and Pittsburgh leaving numerous deaths in their wake. When the military was called in, demonstrations escalated into a small scale war on the streets of Baltimore.

During the air traffic controllers' strike, the public barely blinked. Anybody with a technical job watching the situation unfold had to feel shaken that, as smart and skilled as they thought they were, they could be instantly replaced.

However, what was lost in the public's perception of that strike is that although Reagan was able to replace a majority of the strikers, it wasn't easy. Most of the positions were only temporarily filled by air traffic controllers from the military and other sectors until permanent replacements could be found. And even then, it took ten years to replace all of the blacklisted workers.

Finding somebody that knows how to operate all the knobs and switches of a traffic control panel, knows landing protocol and knows how the whole process comes together is much harder than one might think. Air traffic control is not a trade that can be learned overnight with an instructional manual.

To this day, only one air traffic controller handles all of the landings at a number of major hubs. When the controller handling D.C.'s Reagan National Airport recently fell asleep on the job after working four consecutive overnight shifts, planes were forced to land unassisted, thankfully without incident.

If the air traffic controllers' strike was a failure of labor relations, it wasn't because of the unimportance of technical skills; it was the under-appreciation of them. Information technology workers tend to trivialize what they do -- out of humility or just to make complex tasks more approachable -- to the extent that they never speak up for themselves. They are more likely to complain about the user interface design on a software application than their own lot in life.

In a way, it's a very selfless worldview where rational accomplishment is a goal in and of itself, there's no need for power, and all anybody needs in life is access to information. But at a certain point, freedom of information can only go so far. Improving peoples' lives requires access to power, even if the bureaucratic processes involved in achieving that power are completely abhorrent to the independent computer programmer lifestyle.

In the world of labor relations, organized unions have been the best option towards progress for workers. So far, nobody has been able to develop an app that can replace them.

Image: NARA/Alexis Madrigal.