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Cover image for Should we form a labor union?

Should we form a labor union?

steveblue profile image Steve Belovarich ・5 min read

You may have heard someone over the past few years talk about web developers like they're the new blue collar worker. There is some truth in that statement, seeing as it can take a salary from a job in the technology sector to live comfortably in America. There's at least one thing missing from this analogy. Blue collar workers have labor unions, we don’t.

The portrait of a blue collar worker

The economy in 50s America enabled a sole breadwinner in the family to provide enough to pay the bills, put food on the table and even take the family on a vacation. The uneven distribution of wealth today in America prevents blue collar workers from having the same level of freedom. This is not necessarily true of technology jobs, where the median salary for some positions can be well over $100,000 annually.

It's complicated for some people

There are some of us in the technology sector who still have a difficult time making ends meet when housing prices are high, employer provided insurance refuses to cover medical bills, student loans prohibit some of us from obtaining credit. Sometimes we are forced to trade salary for benefits and job security when converting from contract to full-time.

The recruiting situation could be way better

When web engineers are laid off they often have to rely on a disconnected network of recruiters to acquire a new job. The recruiters are often not very concerned about your well-being and solely interested in the money they make off the transaction of finding you a job. It sounds good on paper. The recruiter has an incentive to get you a higher salary. But often that can be at the expense of good benefits or even full-time status. The recruiter will also not be there for you when things go wrong. It's in their best interest for you to keep the job.

There isn't any incentive for corporations to change

There is hardly ever any accountability or incentive for the employer to change corporate culture. Maybe you are lucky enough to work in a decent environment with coworkers who also have a healthy work-life balance. That is not the case for so many people who work at corporations with a toxic environment. It is hard to change corporate culture. Sometimes it can take drastic measures like a work stoppage or a strike. But who is brave enough to orchestrate such an ordeal? It takes a lot of organization and energy to rally everyone behind the cause.

The lack of standardized testing and certification

We've all taken the unbearable tests. If someone came in and offered proper certifications, some of that could go away. When a candidate is certifiable they have already proven their expertise. Some of us have employers who will pay for continuing education, while others do not. It can be hard to stay relevant with the changing landscape of technology especially when someone is comfortable at a job. What if there was a highly visible organization that provided continuing education and industry-wide recognized certification for a reasonable fee?

The overwhelming amount of contract positions

Contract jobs are challenging for most. If you have to operate as a sole proprietorship now you have the added responsibility of maintaining a business mostly for tax purposes. You may also need to track down affordable insurance and other benefits if the company you contract with doesn't offer these perks or has really horrible options. You'll be day dreaming nine months in at your job, thinking wouldn't it be nice when vacation rolls around. But it won't, unless you figure out how to save and be able to take a hit from not getting paid while on vacay. What if someone had your back and made sure with every contract position you also got at least three weeks vacation?

The current process for salary negotiations results in inequality

The employer or recruiter will always justify it with your slightly higher salary than if you were hired full-time, but that's a bunch of baloney. There are people working full-time that make more than you do in your contract. Someone negotiated a better rate and received it. Then there's the problem where women are often paid less than men in the same position. Then there's the issue of locality. We allow corporations to pay someone in another country far less for the same job. We need an organization who can stop this inequality in its tracks and provide a fair and balanced approach.

It's hard to settle disputes when things go bad

Have you ever had a client stiff you for thousands of dollars and then claim you didn’t finish the work even though you did meet the requirements? It can be a struggle to get paid. The amount your former client owes you can be over the limit for small claims court and well below the amount that would make a lawyer interested in representing you. It can be even harder to bring a wrongful termination suit against a corporation. It also means you don’t have a reference from your last job. What if you had access to a resource that would provide legal representation in situations you are clearly owed money?

Someone needs to hold the corporations accountable

Why should we have put put up with clients not paying us for our services? Why should we have to depend on a disparate network of recruiters? Why do we put up with the state of job interviews in technology? How does meaningful change happen for women in tech when the government fails to mandate fair income laws?

It takes an organization of dedicated people to fix these kinds problems. This is where a labor union can help.

Labor unions use collective bargaining to secure better working conditions for its members. Being part of a labor union gives you negotiating power.

What are the benefits of being in a union?

  • Collective bargaining
  • Better working conditions
  • Provides training for new skills
  • Standardized wages
  • Negotiating power for better benefits / pay
  • Pension benefits

If people working in technology were to form a union, I'm sure they could overcome some of the bury

There has to be an incentive

There will be resistance to the idea of a labor union in technology at first. Change is difficult, especially for the conservatives who usually end up running major corporations. Greed is a powerful drug. There would have to be a huge incentive for corporations to abandon the status quo.

The labor union would have to provide a superior, well-educated and experienced workforce. The union would have to simply the process of finding and hiring talent for HR at corporations.

There are probably more incentives for corporations, but the point of a labor union would largely be to protect people working in tech. Labor unions won't solve all of our problems, however I believe a labor union could make life better for those of us working in technology.

What do you think?

Posted on by:

steveblue profile

Steve Belovarich

@steveblue

full stack web engineer, creative coder, teacher, cultural critic and indie music fan.

Discussion

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No thanks, I live in Europe where most of that is already covered and protected by law.

By the way, the standardized test and certification thing sounds to me very detrimental to a sector that evolves at the speed that our does.

 

Some of us are not so fortunate. The state of testing is already very bad. I’ve taken probably over 100 tests in the past 20 years and haven’t seen them moving at the speed of light. On the contrary, I’m still asked completely asinine questions.

 

The whole idea behind a very clear cut certification for various technologies is so you wouldn’t have to take tests written by people who are not qualified to even conduct a test. The certification could be a living document. It doesn’t have to stagnate.

And who would decide what is the correct test method and content? And the new ones?

If a technology or framework starts gaining traction should it be tested before or after it is widely spread? What technologies are going to be tested? because depending on the vertical business your company is, the technologies used can vary a lot.

This is what I mean, I think this is one of those things that sounds good on paper and is proposed in good faith but at the end of the day is detrimental to everyone.

Perhaps it’s time to hand over test curation to academics, you know the people trained in education who are actually qualified to create rubric, define meaningful test questions and conduct a test with some integrity.

I disagree that certification is detrimental. On the contrary, studying for a certification can be quite rewarding. You’ll learn things you may not have otherwise known. I for one want to work with people who continually learn.

Do you mean the same academics that haven't coded in decades?

Ugh. Nothing is absolute.

I'm not saying it as an absolute, what I'm trying to make you see is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Sorry don’t see it. You’re talking to one of those academics.

So, how would you test if someone knows how to measure cohesion vs coupling and how to decide the correct balance?

How to choose a technology for that vertical? How to plan a refactor of a 10-year-old codebase?

Testing little things like proficiency in X or Y is easy, that is why certifications exist. Real software engineering challenges are still debated how are best solved, how will you test it then?

You are getting way into the minutia for a post that is mostly about worker’s rights. No one is arguing an interview should be devoid of conversation or even debate. There are certainly questions that could be asked that aren’t covered by certification. That doesn’t mean certifications aren’t also valuable.

I'm not attacking you, don't take me wrong. I'm just trying to challenge your ideas to avoid a little "happy bubble".

In my country, unions do great things and are historically responsible for lots of workers rights but the big ones have turned into an extension of the political parties and are used to keep workers in check and perpetuate the status quo. The tests done by them are mostly political and focused on gaining money and ripe with corruption and all of that happened in less than 20 years. Do you think it would fare differently in the states?

My advice, if you want it, is to promote socialism instead of unions. If by law you have paid vacations, maternity and paternity paid leave(ideally with both being in equal length to avoid discrimination against women), a livable minimum wage and universal healthcare you won't need any unions.
Unions were needed when socialism was an unknown scary thing for the elites and the workers had to force it, now you people just need to vote for parties that want to implement the same we have in all the European Union.

I don’t feel attacked. 🤷‍♂️ Try saying the word socialism in America and see where that gets you. It’s still a scary thing.

In Germany, we call it “social market economy”, so it doesn’t sound that scary. See where it got us 😊
We have all benefits André mentioned plus most software developers working in larger companies are actually part of the union that organizes engineers in general.

 

No thanks. As long as the union is voluntary and not something forced on the individual, I can't say I'd be opposed to it, but let's not introduce more legislation into the job market. I've worked actual blue collar jobs which were unionized, and to be honest unions are not worth it. I'd rather take my chances as a freelancer or work for a corporation than have to pay union dues which in my opinion rarely outweighs the "benefit".

Most often the union body becomes largely political and becomes rather bureaucratic. No thanks.

 

The chances people take right now are far worse in my opinion than the relative job safety that can come with a labor union. I would rather pay union dues if that meant someone were watching out for me when things go bad and if it created more relative equality in the workforce. That sounds rather romantic, I know. I would still remain skeptical of a labor union, however it may be better than what we've got now. I don't think we can rely on corporations or the government to look out for our best interests most of the time. Don't you think if people working in tech were to start a union, they could possibly come up with a better solution than the bureaucratic mess you describe? I do.

 

As long as it's a voluntary relationship, I really don't care. I'm just saying collectives like this historically don't do well, unless they form a political relationship, which to be honest, I'm not interested in.

 

This. If people want to voluntarily band together for negotiating that's great. Please don't think the industry with more legislation. Small business in the sector will be gone instantly.

 

That’s a myth. I hear this same argument from small business owners in regards to making the minimum wage in America $15/hr.

How is this a myth? You made the point yourself. Starting your own business has a lot of overhead (finding your own insurance, taxes, accounting). Tack on not being able to hire without going through a labor Union and paying higher wages to offset dues. Just one more thing to do.

There are a million things to do in a business and treating your employees right should be a top priority, no matter what stage of the business you are in. Just one more thing isn't going to break everything. Change happens and businesses need to be flexible enough to adapt to change. If some business isn't making enough profit and has to tack on debt just to pay employees then maybe you're right it shouldn't be in business.

Having been stiffed by a small business for a large amount as an independent contractor, I have no remorse for the full weight of the law being brought down on that small business. But we live in an environment where you can't gain legal representation because the sum is not attractive enough for a lawyer. In America even hard workers who meet all agreed upon requirements for a project can just not get paid for their services and then have to hear the argument "you didn't finish the project". That's supposed to be OK because it was a small business?

I agree that treating employees right should be a top priority, but that doesn't require paperwork and paying fees. Fees to union execs that are just as useless and overpayed as corporate execs.

It isn't about workers vs businesses imo. It's about giving workers the freedom to be their own businesses, so they can get as much of the profits of their labors as possible. The ideal in my opinion is that if I produce 100k dollars of value each year, I want to be payed as close to that amount as possible. Corporations, unions, and taxes are all a drain on that value.

Im not 100% sure why you are assuming a union made for us would have to be 100% like every union that came before it? We work in an industry that encourages disruption, so let's disrupt the model and make it less corruptible.

I'm not about to get into a debate about taxes and such.

 

Great question! I don't have an answer, but have been wondering the same thing. I spend a lot of time thinking about employee rights, and how we should be pushing for things like:

  • more accessible workspaces for those with disabilities
  • longer/paid parental leave
  • better health insurance
  • more time off
  • being open to remote work and/or flexible hours

These are all things that young/healthy/privileged employees may not even notice, but they can hit hard once you need them.

Not sure how related this is, but I also think about how software engineers should be held responsible for the code they write. It shouldn't be an option to write inaccessible code as a way to save time or money - we should have a code of ethics that prevents us from doing work like that. This is a thing in other industries, so I'm not sure why that doesn't exist for us.

 

THIS! SO MUCH MORE OF THIS! 🤯

I totally agree with the responsibility part. The code of ethics is an amazing idea! What if the union could have a code of ethics everyone abides by? That way corporations who hire out of the union know they are getting someone who will responsibly develop. Of course I'm saying this just after I just made a gigantic table keyboard accessible. It would be nice if I could go to a place where similar minded folks hung out.

 

ACM and IEEE have adopted a code of ethics for software engineers, but it's not anything that's enforced (as far as I know):
ethics.acm.org/code-of-ethics/soft...

 

Definitely always pushing for better benefits and compensations is a good thing. It is better for employees to understand their value to the company and know how to negotiate than have a formal union with all the overhead though IMO.

 

No thanks here. It seems I'm not facing the problems you describe, so adding more bureaucracy to the situation does not seem desirable. And if I can be utterly frank, we're talking about office jobs with above average pay. Such measures should be reserved for work where life and limb are at risk and extreme forms of exploitation. (One that comes to mind is the traveling salespeople. You know, those people that ring your door on Saturday. Many of them are paid next-to-nothing, legally, because their work crosses state lines. And they might essentially be held hostage with the threat of being left wherever the crew happens to be if they quit. Many of them are from disadvantaged backgrounds, so the threat of being left homeless in an unfamiliar place is very real.)

 

No one is proposing taking resources away from those in need. Over the past 5 years I've personally experienced or know someone who has experienced every problem I described. I'm sure others can too. I'm not saying the situation is desperate (maybe for some people living paycheck to paycheck it is on the brink), but the situation could be way better.

Who do you think is going to ensure women are offered an equal wage?

 

Re-edited this first part, since what I quoted originally isn't there.

Who do you think is going to ensure women are offered an equal wage?

I think you have to be careful about how this question is taken. I'll assume you mean: what can we do to fix the pay inequity among different genders (and other attributes)? Lending privilege is a great start.

No one is proposing taking resources away from those in need.

Resources are finite. You can't have more without taking it from somewhere. That includes an inflated cost of goods and services for industries with unions. But in cases where people can literally die or be extremely exploited without them, it seems worth paying more to prevent that. So, who do you propose pays for the software union overhead? (Not the dues, but the addition process road blocks it will put up before people can do the work.) The consumers of software who probably make less than the engineers who create it? That's ultimately where the money will come from. Business just passes it on to customers in the price of goods and services.

I will just have to respectfully disagree. I'm not meaning to put words in your mouth.

You don't have to take a union away from someone to give a union to another. That is just too simplistic.

But you also haven't answered my question. How are people who are disadvantaged in technology (either because of their gender / race or because they are simply a lower class of employee: a contractor) supposed to get some representation without a union?

It's almost 2020 and women aren't paid as well as men and contractors don't get the same kind of benefits most of the time like paid vacation, sick leave or health benefits. I expect better for these people.

I think if there were an easy universal answer that I could write in what fits here, then it would already be a solved problem.

For me personally, the answer for most of the concerns would be that I would find a different job. And as I just indirectly stated above, that strategy won't work for all situations everywhere. And neither will unions fix all situations everywhere. But they will certainly increase the overall cost to develop software.

It's not that simple for most people to just find a different job. Even when they do its a gamble and the situation can be far worse. I've worked in places where there were amazing benefits to places that only hire contractors and don't give them any benefits. I would like to see some evidence that a labor union would drive up the cost of developing software. It just sounds too easy to be true.

I will Wally-reflector your Wally-reflector. :) I would like to see evidence that introducing labor unions maintain or lower the price of goods and services. :)

By the way, I'm keeping it light here. I mean to imply no angry feelings or anything like that. Just expressing thoughts. Best wishes to you and your family. Seriously!

 

Organizing software developers seems to be more or less an exercise in herding cats, except that senior cats are able to negotiate for themselves at least as well independently as they could collectively. This won't hold true forever, of course. But the only way I can think of for labor unions to get a real foothold in this industry is for a significant fraction of workers at a major concern -- on the level of a Microsoft, an Alphabet, or an Alibaba -- to organize.

So far workers at some of these companies have been able to exert some degree of collective pressure on their employers. Google dropped out of the JEDI contract competition; Microsoft's PAC, which had been donating to some of the worst people in the US government, has just recently been put on ice. I'm hoping that these and other collective actions can eventually grow into something which gives workers at those & other companies a more persistent voice in the uses to which their labor is put, but I suppose time will tell.

 

Have you checked out techworkerscoalition.org/ yet? The work has already begun!

 
 

Thanks for writing this post. You’ve got some extremely predictable comments to go with it 😄. People have been making the same complaints about unions (“they slow down innovation”, “leave that for workers who really need it”, “if things are bad we can just find another job”, “too much bureaucracy”, etc.) literally since the inception of the modern union. They’ve never been right. Keep up the good fight!

I especially love the “too much bureaucracy” argument. As if a bunch of people who work in tech were about start using hand written forms or something.

Thank you for the kind words.

 

Am I correct in thinking this is a decidedly American problem? In the UK most of these issues are covered in law.

Unions did some great work in the 60s in the UK. Then became beasts they tried to destroy in the 70s. And then they brought the wrath of the Government down in the 80s and now the general public consensus is that "Unions on paper sound great, but people can't be trusted to manage them".

 

It’s a problem anywhere corporations can exploit workers.

 

Unions are an anti-pattern in a free and competitive economy. While the IT market may not be perfectly competitive overall, the programming job market in nearly there. We have a vibrant ecosystem of all kinds of jobs ranging from full-time to contractual to even freelance and gig based economy. If you are proficient in a coding skill and are willing to accept the market wage, there is no way you won't get a programming job in today's world.

Unlike those "blue collar workers", we have a good idea of how much a programmer should get paid. We have access to all the stats and information online and unlike them, our skills have perfect mobility. Heck, we can even work remotely through our laptops if we want!

Even the consideration of "forming a union" in our kind of trade sounds ridiculous! We are no different than doctors, accountants or mechanical engineers in this regard.

 

😐 All the professions you listed have unions
American Society Of Mechanical Engineers asme.org/
Union Of American Physicians and Dentists uapd.com/all-doctors-need-a-union/
Union of Accountants and Auditors ifac.org/about-ifac/membership/mem...

 

While that may be true, these are more of a "namby pamby club" or meetup kinda unions where like-minded individuals share their learning. I thought we are talking about industrial unions, the kind that fights against capitalist corps and employers for the worker's rights and wages?

I’m saying it can be both or either, that’s up for discussion.

It’s about time we figure out a way for women to get paid an equal wage and help enable minorities who are otherwise discriminated against find employment IMHO. We also need to deal with the unequal footing created by the contractor culture in America. I don’t know how that noble goal is an “anti-pattern”.

 

I'd be curious to know if you (or anyone) had seen any studies or stats on what percentage of software developers would be interested in unionizing. My hypothesis is that the single biggest hurdle to clear would be a lack of sufficient interest to give the collective bargaining entity any meaningful leverage. But I admittedly have no idea what percentage of people would be inclined to agree.

Also, as an aside, why specifically "web" developers? Would there be a web developers' union, a mobile developers' union, an embedded developers' union, etc?

 

What I'm proposing would be for anyone working in software or hardware development. Engineers, Designers, Copywriters, PM, you name it.

There would undoubtedly need to be a lot of research going into it.

Maybe there is lack of interest because we are so fragmented no one has really pursued the idea? If someone has done research please comment about it here. I would love to dig in.

 

I'm not an expert on the specific internal mechanics of labor unions, but the prevailing wages for some of those roles (say, copywriter versus software developer, two roles near and dear to my livelihood) are very different. Do unions encompass such a diverse set of jobs? Or would each of those disciplines have its own?

I'm just kind of idly curious as to how this might work.

It seems as though it'd be pretty tough to achieve any kind of critical mass with a grass-roots persuasion campaign. I think, for it to achieve in the US, would require a lot of political lobbying and the passage of regulatory legislation of some kind. In other words, I imagine it'd be more expedient to take up the case with politicians than with knowledge workers, many of whom will look at their personal situations and view this as a solution in search of a problem.

Another thing that occurs to me is that such an action in the US, combined with the current, quiet restrictions around H1-B visas, might just send the off-shoring/near-shoring movements into hyper-drive. IOW, US software developers unionize, enterprise IT leadership shrugs, sighs, fires everyone, and sets up shop in Eastern Europe or Asia.

(Which kinda brings me back to the requirement of sweeping legislation for it to be viable)

Anyway, curious as to the mechanics of how such a thing would play out if, say, it started to gain traction.

There are some unions that encompass many different professions. Someone in the thread pointed out one based out of Chicago.

I think something like this can only work from the bottom up.

Some organization has to be the conscience for tech corporations. We have organizations like EFF but they need as much help as they can get. Another entity lobbying on behalf of the workers would be helpful.

 

Wondering if anyone is for a union for people in technology?

 

Idk what is up with the comments here, wildly discouraging. We've got Thatcherites...anti-tax folks....my fave euro dude who thinks jumping straight to socialism (which he doesn't have...in the first place...because democratic socialism != socialism...) is more viable than talking about unions, not realizing that 1. socialism is a Bad Word in the US, 2. socialism won't come about without the working + middle classes connecting on labor issues...
Also 'anti-pattern' guy lmao....

I love the idea of unionizing but uh look at this mess lol y i k e s

 

There is a lot of disinformation out there about any organization who wants to challenge the status quo. 🤷‍♂️

That and it reeks of "I got mine"-ism. Still no responses to your point of how do we as a collective empower marginalized/oppressed people in the industry.

 

I'm in favor of having unions and would love to see the tech industry move to having them as long as they work to making work environments more inclusive and equitable for marginalized folks.

Thank you for writing this up and creating space for discussion!

 

I would very much be for it. I am in Europe and frankly I do not agree with what has been written in the comments above, that much is already covered by law.
That is not true. Let's take the blackmail of illegal questions in job interviews. Even if they are illegal, even if discrimination is a well established crime, both in European and US legislation, still employers are asking illegal questions and use discrimination against sex, origin and marital status. Technical interviews that do not have anything to do with the job itself, but are just an humiliation for candidate developers. Companies that are rejecting good developers only because they are older.
Companies that are rejecting good developers only because they do not hold a degree. And some will tell you that you are rejected because you dont hold a CS degree only at the end of all the 5 steps of the recruiting process.
Now, I ask myself: what do all these arbitrary criteria and rejections have to do with INNOVATION? I think on the contrary that exactly these malpractices are skimming off good candidates and prevent innovation.
I would thouroughly support a trade union for developers - it is needed now more than ever. The course of future now is that many developers' jobs are bound in less than 20 years to be replaced by robots, if we let employers do what they do and how they want.

 

Most of the testing and certifications I've seen have very little to do with your ability as a developer, rather just focusing a tiny piece of non-related code.
And the types of developers vary quite a lot too. ie. the difference between a deeply focused google back-end engineer vs a broad spectrum small business solutions builder. How do you compare the two??

The coding/programming teachers (academics) I've met don't code or build for a living, hardly the type to be the judge of your ability in your field.

So this will be difficult, especially on a global scale, but I actually like the idea, because I've grown terribly allergic to coding tests!

 

It REALLY depends on how the test is administered. I don’t know how many times I’ve had other engineers looking over my shoulder while I’m taking the test. Enough times to crack the joke “What you don’t know the answer?” But seriously for a moment, I’ve seen brilliant people freeze the moment they feel people have the opportunity to be judgemental and the person who is giving the test has no idea how to communicate effectively so it results in just an unpleasant experience for everyone.

 

haha, yes. I think those timed online ones are the worst.
The last one I had (sitting at home) just started, then a notification came through about a webinar with Peter Diamandis starting that I had registered for but forgot about. Absolute panic, trying to listen to him talk about solving worldwide problems whilst trying to remember to put 15 return statements in a javascript function!! uuughh

In the previous companies I've been involved with, new recruits would just be thrown into a small parts of the actual work and they would be free to get into the code at their own time. Absolute beginners (fresh out of college etc.) would be brought up to speed over the course of a few weeks to learn the stack etc.

 

I've also been thinking about this lately! I'm not sure I think some of these goals (e.g. certification) would be best handled by a union, but I think there's a lot of room for collective bargaining over benefits and working conditions. There doesn't need to be a massive national union for you to band together with your coworkers and ask for a specific change.

I wrote a little recap piece on a recent action Wayfair employees took. This was in regards to a social issue, but I think the same type of process would work well for other types of requests. dev.to/vcarl/how-a-walkout-happens...

 

Something interesting to note is that the IWW is a union that includes members of many varying trades and jobs, including some developers. If you’re interested in unions but don’t know how to go about finding or creating one it may be useful to look them up.

 

I've long thought having a trade union would be helpful for web developers.

Web dev is more of a trade than a profession - we build stuff, we lack any sort of definitive professional body the way accountants have, and I have personally known people who entered the industry via apprenticeships, so to say it's not a trade is wrong.

We also have certain structural problems in the industry. The demographic is predominantly young and male, which comes with its own set of problems:

  • Younger developers may be less knowledgeable about their rights as employees, and so easier to exploit (many of us have horror stories about trying to get paid for work done)
  • The benefits offered will tend to target this demographic, thus dissuading older or female developers from applying for positions and intensifying the lack of diversity
  • Developers are in my experience usually socially liberal, but outright discrimination certainly isn't unknown in our industry and it's naive to think otherwise
  • I've known employers to treat staff very badly in this industry - brutal death marches, written warnings for talking, and things like that

This is all stuff unions can help with.

In addition, I believe in trade unions as a (usual) force for good. I'm in the UK and normally vote for the Labour party, who grew out of the trade union movement. I'd like my industry to have more role in shaping government policy, and having a trade union for us that would be affiliated with the Labour party would be one way to achieve that next time Labour are in power.

 

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.

 

Strongly agree that there has to be some kind of standardised certificare a developer needs to pass before working on products which has effects on other people. Not only tech-basics, but also ethics need to play a large role in this. Especially nowadays, when software has more influence on our daily lives than ever.

A bit off topic: I really don't like the use of "blue-collar" in the context of software-engineering. I find it a bit derogatory to all the workers who work long and hard fixing, carrying, driving, building society.
But "white-collar" also doesn't quite hit it. I'd say we use "Gold-Collar" from now on.

 

I don’t think we deserve any special treatment. How don’t people in technology “work long and hard fixing, carrying, driving, and building society” when their peers work for corporations that have changed how we think about transportation, currency or even housing? We are the new blue collar in many ways.

 

A thousand times yes! This is the only way to hold companies accountable in the way they interact with their workers. And I don't think it's a secret that the power balance between workers and companies is in dis-balance!

 

I guess it depends where you live/work. In my region, we're pretty well protected by "les normes du travail". There's still unions in some industries, but most of them are just corrupt thugs not looking out for the union members. As for certifications, I guess we have some, but not that much, for example, you can't be an engineer without a degree and a license. Also, it kinda grinds my gears when people say that web development is a blue collar job. A blue collar job is manual work, web development is the furthest thing from blue collar work, it's insulting to blue collar workers. Great article nonetheless.

 

i feel conflicted about this article, while a part of me daydreams about being a labor leader for CSS workers in sub saharan Africa, ensuring everyone in my group is treated fairly with fantastic wages and insurance. the reality is, technological innovation is too radical compared to the industrialization age that birthed unions. plus corporations are way more powerful and smarter.

if you believe in company culture, then you believe in company-moderated labor unions. i dont see much of a difference either way. mind you this is just my opinion.

 

What could be other ideas for making pay / benefits more fair across the board? I'm not hearing any alternative ideas.

 

Here are some alternatives to unions off the top of my head:

  • Gender studies being required in CS/SE coursework
  • Salary negotiations being required in CS/SE courerwork
  • Bootcamps covering salary negotiation
  • Open and freely available materials to empower individuals in negotiations (some exist on YT, but many are paid things)
  • More legislation broadly targeting gender pay gap (some is here, but I wish legislation had a robust system for individuals to quickly bring cases and quickly resolve them)
  • employers offering standard benefits packages not up for negotiation (everyone gets the same thing)
  • require open source employee handbooks like GitLab
  • open salaries / salary 'levels'
  • require a reason for not hiring within two days (we just need to really reinvent this recruiting, hiring, and offer stuff imo)
 

All of these sound like great ideas. I think preventative measures are definitely required. Open salaries have been slow to take off. I like that idea but I think having a fair standard pay would be great too. One company I spoke with used the 75th percentile salary. That seemed reasonable to ensure even the workers for that corporation who worked in India were getting paid the same relative to the people in the US. 90th percentile sounds better. 😃 Maybe I’m going on on a limb there, but I we need standards in place and don’t think corporations will willingly offer them en masse nor do I think government is interested in helping people who work in technology because we aren’t the most visibly disadvantaged.

I’m not sure how we reinvent all these things without an organization like a union though? Change is slow. Corporations have lobbyists, we don't as employees.

It's hard, but I think right now employees have a lot of power. The software job market is just so....tilted towards us I guess is a good way to put it. Perhaps if we simply didn't work for employers who didn't offer a minimum high bar of standards, that could be the pressure needed. And it doesn't need to be the fringe employees who are living pay check to pay check; it can just be the top 30% or 20%; the 'top talent' has a lot of sway over what kinds of incentives employers provide. That's why we see silly things like daily free lunches being hyped instead of robust paternity leave; the top talent the employer is after has done their market research, and the 'top talent' hasn't matured yet.

I hope that as our industry matures, the engineers will be able to shape how we want the industry to look like and function with discussions like these here on dev.to, and on Twitter, and yes, even irl in our break rooms and slack channels.

I guess what I'm envisioning is more of an educated workforce via an ad hoc union of sorts, that's more grassroots than formal and organized. We don't need legal power, we need social pressures and community. Idk, maybe that doesn't honor the real hardships certain families experience, but here in Texas in the DFW metroplex, even bad engineers have it really great. It's hard for me to imagine a software engineer living on the edge down here, but in calfironia I'm sure that's the norm. #costOfLiving