Want To Unionize Developers? Focus On Workplace Democracy

Despite the efforts of many different organizers over the years software developers have resisted unionization. The relatively high pay and good working conditions of developers, the stereotype of geeks as loners and the general decline of unions in the U.S. are all commonly cited reasons. But maybe unions are failing in tech because they’re not addressing the real issue: giving developers more control over their work life.

Moving Up Maslow’s Pyramid

Developers want autonomy. They don’t want to be jerked around by stupid managers who impose unrealistic deadlines, make impossible promises to clients and just generally disrespect their employees. Historically developers have had two options for dealing with bad management: find a better job or found a startup. But worker self-management would offer a third options — give the developers control over their own work.

Companies like Valve prove that self-management can work in the software industry. Unionization could potentially provide a path to that sort of workplace structure, if organizers can move up Maslow’s pyramid a bit.

Today workers tend to think of unions merely as organizations that negotiate salaries and benefits with big corporations. Workers who make decent salaries — as developers tend to — have less incentive to try collective bargaining at the risk of getting shit-canned. Workers have also come to distrust unions. They also tend to think of a union as something that takes away their workplace freedom, not something that gives them the ability to have more control over their day to day work life.

But The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), today a more “fringe” union in the shadow of the AFL-CIO, has long promoted workplace democracy as a value. The union started out in 1905 and was prominent throughout the early 20th centur. After a series of unfortunate events its membership declined, but the organization has been staging a come back. It’s probably known best known in recent years for its efforts to organize Starbucks in New York City.

The IWW has a decentralized model that it seems that developers could get behind. Members don’t have a to have a contract with their employers — in other words, you can be a member of the IWW even if your company isn’t officially unionized. And you can actually be a member of both the IWW and another union. Most importantly, the union emphasizes worker self-management over just cutting deals with the bosses.

The Case For a Developers Union

I’m not saying that worker self-management is the only reason to unionize. Most workers will have more immediately compensation and security concerns. And even developers can benefit from wage and benefits negotiations.

Some engineers’ salaries have passed the six figure mark, and companies are offering signing bonuses and perks such as island vacations. Offshoring has become less of a concern, and our own Jon Evans thinks it will be at least 10 until U.S. developer wages are driven down by international competition.

Yet in pretty much any discussion thread about the developer shortage you’ll find people who claim the real issue is that companies are demanding too much experience for too little pay. This comment on Hacker News is typical: “We’ve gotten plenty of good candidates in our doors that turn us down because our pay is barely competitive and our health insurance is terrible. Pay more money and you can attract more tech workers.”

And that’s not to mention the long hours many programmers are asked or required to work, despite research indicating that overtime may be counter productive.

Meanwhile, large companies still hire hordes of contract workers who don’t get the same benefits as full-time employees. The term “precarity” in labor lingo means temporary and/or intermittent work. It usually refers to lower paying work than the typical tech contract, but many developers could be getting short changed.

Making It Happen

But these issues don’t seem to be the ones that will rally developers into action. Various groups have tired to organize developers and other tech workers over the years. The most notable is WashTech, an Communications Workers Of America (CWA) which is itself affiliated with the AFL-CIO. WashTech was founded in 1998 in response to Microsoft’spervasive use of permatemps.

In 2003 the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers started the seemingly now defunct CyberLodge. Its founder, Ian Lurie, told The Register that the idea was to create something more like an open source trade guild than a union.

And then there’s Communications and Computer Workers Industrial Union 560 (iu560), which is part of the IWW. Like the CWA, the iu560 is open not just to developers but to technical and telecommunications workers.

Steve Ayers, a programmer and IWW member, says that the stereotype of developers as loners is not entirely accurate. He cites, for example, open source development, which is a type of collaborative endeavor meant to bring about a collective good. Ayers describes open source as communism with a lowercase “c.”

And even in cases where the stereotype fits, there’s a history of workers banding together. “Timber Workers were stereotyped as lone ‘Paul Bunyan’ types, but the Timber Workers became one of the largest Industrial Unions in the IWW and one of it’s most successful,” he says.

“I have found that workers will be receptive or not receptive to organizing largely on how its presented to them,” he says. “If one walks up to a worker and asks ‘Would you like to form a Union?’ they’re not going to be receptive. But, if you talk to them about their job and the problems they face, and then ask them if they want to do something about it they are much more receptive. I think this speaks more to the labor movement in the US then the tech industry.”

It could be that union’s just have an insurmountable branding problem, having been vilified for so long. And the IWW’s position on the leftist fringe may turn off many more right leaning workers. But there’s a model there that could be emulated. It’s a starting point at least.