United we demand, divided we beg.
May 1, 2018 8:36 AM   Subscribe

“... the gap between tech theory and tech practice has grown increasingly difficult to ignore. Even the tech press — Wired and its ilk — has lost faith. Many now know the tech elite as a hive of misogynists and sociopaths, and their companies to be indiscriminate vacuums of sensitive personal data that they package and sell to the nation’s intelligence agencies (and the Trump campaign). According to polls, the majority of the public still maintains a positive view of the industry’s biggest companies. But the scales have fallen from the eyes of many of its workers.” Code Red - the Tech Solidarity and the Tech Workers Coalition, a history of tech industry worker action, and the growing movement to unionize tech from the bottom up. (N+1)
posted by The Whelk (9 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I've worked in development in tech for quite a long time. The differences in attitude even a modest amount of diversity (and I mean people with at least some influence) makes an enormous, observable difference in attitudes to pretty much everything the company does. We need more diversity from university on through to CEO. It doesn't even have to get to the level of fair to help the industry behave much better; once that happens, fair has a much better chance of coming to pass.
posted by Bovine Love at 9:11 AM on May 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

I've always thought tech workers are one of those groups that is in desperate need of a union, and one which will almost certainly never unionize.

Even leaving aside the libertarian leanings that far too many of my fellow techies have, we're spread out geographically, there's often very few of us in any given business, and there is an almost limitless pool of potential scabs ready and eager to take the jobs if we did try to unionize and management decided to give us the boot.

One reason why mine and factory labor was one of the first to unionize, and one of the most stalwart of the unions, is because there's lots of workers all gathered in one place in those jobs. Which makes organization easier and makes replacement by scabs harder.

My current place of employment is has the biggest IT staff of any I've ever worked. There are five of us, counting the director of IT and the assistant director of IT. And tech workers are often fairly atomized. Outside work, I don't maintain a friendship with any other IT workers in the area.

I'd love to be unionized, and I think it'd be beneficial to management as well.

Right now in IT wages are stagnant, same as everywhere else. I'm lucky, I'm going to get a whopping 2% raise this year, and inflation in 2017 was 2.1% so I'm really getting a 0.1% pay cut.

As with a lot of other workers these days there is only one way for the average tech worker to get a raise: switch employers. On average tech workers changes employers every five years. That type of churn means that employers often have workers who are still setting in and trying to figure out the systems they're supposed to be maintaining, which isn't really good for employers.

If they'd pay us better we'd stick around, accumulate institutional knowledge, and things would run better. A union would help with that.

And, if the union also acted as a certifying agency and helped match genuinely qualified techs with employers that'd be even better.

Cuz let me tell you, the current state of verifying the qualifications of a tech is a total failure. We have a variety of agencies, all private and for profit, that issue certifications to people who can pass their tests. And those certificates have very little to do with actually knowing jack shit about working on computers.

The much derided A+ certificate, for example, is supposed to certify that the recipient can perform basic troubleshooting and maintenance on Windows computers. It is widely regarded as toilet paper. You simply cannot trust that a person with an A+ can even successfully install MS Word, much less upgrade a PC or troubleshoot a problem.

The test is a brain dump, and one designed explicitly to enrich the testing agency. You can pass pretty much only if you buy their prep materials and memorize them, because they often use terminology that's unique to them and not found in the real world, phrase questions in obscure ways that you can train to know but will not be able to answer properly if you weren't trained for it, and so on.

People can, and depressingly often do, go through those materials, memorize all the stuff they can, pass the test ($300 every time you try, fail and pay again!) and have an A+ without ever having even touched a computer.

Microsoft, if anything, is worse. An MSCE is generally acknowledged as impossible to get unless you take the MS courses and buy the MS prep materials. The test is basically a test on if you read the (secret, illegal to ever talk about) MS prep materials, not a test on if you know how to administer a Microsoft server or workstation.

So employers have no way of knowing who is qualified and who isn't, which means employers start demanding long experience for even entry level positions. Smart employers try to have experienced IT people they trust do interviews, but that still doesn't guarantee that the new hire will know the difference between a USB port and a network port [1].

A union that did certification via practical exam would be a boon to everyone. We techs loathe the fakers who make our profession look bad.

A union might also help by blackballing techs who snoop. By necessity we've got access to your everything. Literally. I can read every document on any computer in my entire company. I don't, I am scrupulous about staying the hell out of people's documents. But I could. Because I **MUST** have that sort of access to do my job. I can't fix stuff if I don't have full access to everything.

Regrettably some techs aren't so professional and they do snoop. Best Buy went through a scandal a while back where it was revealed that their Geek Squad had a cabal of digital peeping toms who went through every machine they worked on looking for homemade porn and copied it off to share with others of their ilk. A union could maintain a list of such people as a service to employers.

Unfortunately I just don't see it happening in the US. Techs are too scattered, too atomized, and anti-union sentiment is so rampant that both techs and employers wouldn't see the benefits.

[1] Did I ever get called over by a "fellow tech" who couldn't figure out why his mouse wasn't working? Yes. Was his problem that he'd plugged the USB connector into the network port on his laptop? Yes. Did the employer keep him around despite him being totally incompetent? Yes. Did he ever improve? No.
posted by sotonohito at 10:31 AM on May 1, 2018 [17 favorites]

Even leaving aside the libertarian leanings that far too many of my fellow techies have,

Not to mention the depressingly widespread "I'm a unique genius, unions will only hold me back and reward the untalented" attitude...

I sometimes wonder if the spread of libertarianism among tech types was an intentional strategy on the part of the owners. It's a management dream to have workers not only opposed to unions, but who are ideologically committed to fighting them or any other attempts at regulating the company.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:49 AM on May 1, 2018 [10 favorites]

There are existing tech unions, and one of them is Communications Workers of America.

I was a member when working in IT (support) at a University of California campus. AFAIR all tech/dev/support workers in the UC system are members, and it covers everyone from telcom ops and pole climbers to machine room ops, staff devs and frontline support and techs.

I didn't even realize I was a member until about a year into the job and won a retroactive pay raise and my department happily cut me a huge check for the retroactively added pay. CWA organization at UC was why my starting pay as a lowly part time tech was survivable and workable. CWA was also why the internal promotion and hiring structure was healthy and sane, too, and I had the opportunity to move to salaried, too.

CWA has also been at the forefront of call center union representation, strikes and organizing in this space. Remember the Verizon strikes? CWA.

Info on joining or organizing here.

And I think CWA is one of the unions you can just join independently if you work in the represented fields. Sure, there's not a huge benefit without an organized chapter, but you can get involved, learn things, use the org as a way to try to organize your coworkers and maybe even use some of that sweet tech industry pay to pay dues and support fellow lesser paid tech workers and support organization efforts.
posted by loquacious at 11:00 AM on May 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

I've always thought tech workers are one of those groups that is in desperate need of a union, and one which will almost certainly never unionize.

Even leaving aside the libertarian leanings that far too many of my fellow techies have

Don't forget that tech culture has already undergone sweeping changes in the past. What it is does not preclude what it might become.
posted by Jpfed at 11:24 AM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

the zeitgeist on e.g. hacker news is moving left compared to where it used to be, and there’s often people talking about unions in the comments when its relevant. of course you have people arguing against as well with all the usual cliches, but a couple years ago the topic was so far outside the Overton Window nobody would even have thought about it.
posted by vogon_poet at 1:57 PM on May 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

I like this episode of Season Of The Bitch with labor organizer and scholar Jane McAlevey in which she says the material conditions of tech and gig workers is no different from un-unionized auto factory workers in the 1930s and they did this during the highest unemployment rates ever and the stuff that worked 90 years ago still works. Or, in shorter, tech isn't special. Labor is labor.
posted by The Whelk at 10:23 PM on May 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

loquacious: I am the "Bjorn" quoted in the article. It was, in fact, the CWA (its NewsGuild division) that we tried to join.

For any tech workers interested in organizing: the first step you take should be getting in touch with the Tech Workers Coalition. If you decide, at some point, to seek NLRB certification for your union, the CWA is an excellent option.
posted by phrontist at 7:30 AM on May 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

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