Unions see a role for themselves in new economy

Organized labor has played almost no role in the explosion of technological innovation that has helped fuel the current economic expansion in the U.S. Most people in the IT industry agree that the leading high tech companies wouldn’t have got off the ground if they had had to comply with labor contracts.

But suddenly there are rumblings from U.S. labor unions that indicate they aren’t going to leave these fields, no matter how infertile, untilled. Wherever unions believe they can improve conditions for a new crop of workers, be they programmers or people running call centers, they will make their case for collective bargaining. The end result, the unions will argue, could be a better distribution of the new wealth among workers earning the current minimum wage of US$5.15 an hour.

Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), says union participation in the new economy isn’t as far-fetched as some people think. Bahr says unions are experimenting with ways to transform themselves for the new economy, and he points out that office workers and other white-collar employees already comprise 46 percent of union membership in the U.S.

More than half of CWA’s 740,000 members are “building the Information Highway,” including technicians who install digital subscriber line and data integration systems, the union says. Recent developments for labor unions in the U.S. include the creation of the Programmer’s Guild, Washtech’s organization of “perma-temps” at Microsoft Corp., and nascent efforts to organize customer service workers at Amazon.com Inc.

These developments reveal only a miniscule union presence in the U.S. IT industry, and while times are good, most IT workers feel they have little to gain from union membership. Even the president of the Programmers Guild admits that the prospects for unions making significant inroads among programmers are bleak because programmers are already well paid and think they have sufficient job security.

But other job classifications are different. It’s the hourly worker who initially stands to gain the most from unionization. I’ve spent most of my career in journalism at companies that were unionized, and as an hourly worker I benefited from the higher wages and job security of a union job.

If my experience as a union member is any indicator, technology companies whose employees organize will have to contend with a range of job actions, but few strikes. For example, in a former job my solidarity was tested as a member of a union at a U.S. wire service when our work schedule wasn’t posted on time. Someone among us hourly workers knew that the company would have to pay us each a week’s salary if the schedule wasn’t posted on time, and we took advantage of that clause.

As the deadline approached, we remained silent so the company would have to pay up, and pay up it did. Good for our bottom line, but obviously not for the company’s, and even worse for relations with management. Our bureau chief resented that no one pointed out the oversight, and he confronted each one of us individually about it, which left none of us feeling we had done the right thing.

This is the type of issue U.S. companies will face with their hourly employees as labor unions move to sign up new economy workers. Union experts say collective bargaining becomes appealing to workers if they see conditions worsen and wages stagnate, so while the good times last, there might not be much measurable activity.

But union experts also say it took decades to organize autoworkers in the U.S. If 1995 was to the IT industry what 1910 was to the automobile industry, IT workers, especially hourly workers, in 15 years might be on a picket line. The idea might seem foreign to a programmer now, but the unions are already writing the slogans.