Discussion on: Should we form a labor union?

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Abram Stamper

I appreciate the thoughtful remarks and dialogue this article has presented. I’ve pondered this thought for quite a while. Software engineering in essence seems to be a skilled trade. The main difference from a typical skilled trade like electrical, plumbing, carpentry, etc is that our trade changes monthly - sometimes even faster. While local building codes change from time to time (I don’t know anyone using knob & tube wiring anymore?), no other trade has the same high velocity of change. Every month there’s a new JS library or language feature that you MUST be using to remain relevant. Another major difference is the process to become a software engineer. All of the engineers I work with hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree with most holding a master’s or higher. I work in advanced development at an automotive company. Unlike a typical trade track, there is no systematic bona fides apprenticeship program where one spends 3-5 year intervals at specific levels as they achieve higher rankings. Sure, we have Jr, mid level, and sr level engineers, but I believe most people would agree that the career path is one of the most obtuse of any profession. Generally, there’s so much flexibility with our careers that you could do front end, back end, dba, dev ops, full stack, data viz, data science... the list could go a lot longer. Early in our careers, we tend to bounce around to try out different roles and see what we want to do long term. Even then, it’s easy to switch to something new by picking up new skills. Another difference is the knowledge base between a tradesman and a developer. A developer could know C/++ and Java, but not a lick of anything else. That’s just scratching the surface of software engineering as it’s one of the most fields with the most verticals. You may only know 0.01% of the knowledge in the field as a software engineer. Where as the knowledge base of a skilled trade men is a lot higher - I’m talking like knowing 40-70% of everything there is to know about performing the trade. While it may seem similar at a glance, when you take a deep dive, we find that these differences make the discipline of software engineering unlike these typical blue collar jobs.

With that being said, I currently live and grew up in an automotive industrial town in the mid-west. The company made automotive electronics for vehicles and was 100% UAW in its manufacturing facility. During the peak in the 80s, my town produced the most ICs of any city in the world during a 5 year stretch. At the time, there were 8K engineers alone employed. I’m not sure how many hourly workers off the top of my head, but definitely in the tens of thousands. Today, the manufacturing buildings that produced all those components sits empty. There’s only 850 engineers left with 0 UAW employees. When the price of labor is too expensive, a business can always find a cheaper place to obtain labor. Ultimately what broke the labor unions in my town was the globalized society that exploded in the late 90s. Certainly the trade deals like NAFTA signed by President Clinton didn’t help either. Not to add additional stories of how the union’s abused their power of arbitration by protecting employees from termination even when the employee deserved to be rightly fired.

If we can apply the same logic to the technology sector, I think we would end up in a similar boat. Ultimately, what controls the market is supply and demand. We work in a sector with low supply of educated workers currently, which is why we have such high salaries. However, as more people learn to program (eg future generations learning to program in high school, etc) the skill set will become more of a commodity. That'll drive down the labor cost and these high-paying tech-centric jobs will become a run-of-the-mill middle class jobs without a college education required. It’s already transitioning that direction. With that being said, the barriers to entry as an engineer become significantly reduced which allows foreign workers to take the American technology sector’s jobs. The company will operate in the best interests of the share holders and will find lower cost labor elsewhere. If a labor union gets formed, it will just accelerate lowering the barriers to entry even faster to get more skilled individuals into the job market quicker. Thus, I think forming a labor union could be one of the most detrimental avenues going forward. The system is broken, yes. But creating a new system with all this promise will just net you the same results because humanity is broken. Greed and corruption exists in everyone, including unions.

The solution to inequality isn’t more bureaucracy - the solution is for individuals who share your view of the world to get into management positions within the technology sector to change your companies policies and practices. Diversity is an asset. Ultimately, what causes the demise of most companies is a mindset where going against the grain becomes unacceptable. Group think ensues. Due to the lack of diversity of thought, no one challenges the status quo. However engaging in diversity, in true capitalistic fashion, the company will accelerate faster than their competitors thus forcing their competitors to follow similar recruiting practices. The solution is to be better than the rest: Being redemptive.