Unions Press for Foothold in IT Sector

Published December 1, 2008

Influential members of the U.S. tech community are tossing around the idea of forming a union for information technology workers, citing a weakening economy and the trend of outsourcing work overseas or demanding more from Americans at the workplace.

Europe has had IT unions for years. Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, recently agitated against several companies for bringing Indian IT workers into the U.K.—11,000 Indian employees in 2006. The union complained the immigrants took jobs away from British-born workers and reduced salaries of those who remained employed.

The Ukraine, too, has a union specifically for IT employees, ITT.Ua.

Tech experts, however, are skeptical about whether IT worker unionization could succeed on this side of the pond.

Not a Good Fit

“The question is not whether IT workers should or should not form a union, it’s whether or not the IT profession lends itself to the benefits of collective bargaining. I don’t see how it does,” said Steve Titch, a telecom analyst at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.

Duane Crowe, a technology expert from the University of Illinois, also has his doubts.

“The IT field is very broad,” Crowe said. “There are a lot of companies working on many new and old solutions, and there are many levels of differently skilled and educated individuals needed in different parts of companies, different parts of the industry. I just don’t see a union improving the job market.”

Not Much Uniformity

Titch says the differences in each workplace environment make the idea unlikely. Traditional unions usually deal with career fields that have similar employer-specific rules, such as in factories.

“The responsibilities of an IT worker in one company may be completely different from those in another,” Titch said. “IT jobs run a huge gamut, from basic tech support to customizing information security systems critical to an enterprise. Sooner or later, even the entry-level IT workers take on management responsibilities.

“How do you create job rules and wage scales in such an environment, especially when you’re competing against overseas labor?” Titch asked.

Workers Not Complaining

Former Bush administration commerce official Carl Tate says forming a union of IT workers makes little sense, especially since those who work the hardest already tend to make the most money.

“Those workers can negotiate the best contracts, the best benefits, and the best working conditions without the ‘benefits’ of a union,” Tate added. “Given the diversity of professions—IT encompasses a broad swath of computer-based jobs—coupled with the costs and rules attached to labor unions, it would be a more effective alternative if IT employees formed professional groups.”

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.

For more information …

“Keeping Expat Workers Out,” Akanksha Banerji, CNBC-TV18, Oct. 1, 2008: http://news.moneycontrol.com/india/video/stockmarket/23/57/newsvideo/359159