Do Programmers Need a Union?

By January 17, 2018For Developers
Man selecting a balance out of a group of photos of people, a book, a balance, a gavel, and pen and paper.

When developers hear the word union, they usually think of SQL. Programmers know SQL unions well, but, given the hours of unpaid overtime they put in, why don’t they know more about labor unions?

Concepts like collective bargaining, strikes and wage negotiation are unheard of in the tech industry. Most workers do not have access to the benefits a typical trade union would offer, such as legal representation and pensions. In truth, there are several union sub-chapters and professional membership bodies that exist for programmers. These bodies could serve some or all of the functions of a union for programmers, if they so desired.

So why isn’t there a programmer’s union, and would one even benefit them? Read on to mull the issue over with us.

Computer Programming Came Too Late for Unions

Perhaps programmers don’t have as many union options because the profession is a recent one. Computer programming wasn’t even considered a profession when the first group of programmers worked on ENIAC in 1946, and it was several more decades before the existence of modern programming languages. The profession’s limited history differs greatly from industries that were compelled to form workers’ unions after years of unjust treatment.

Before the start of trade unions in the U.S., both skilled and unskilled trade workers were subjected to horrible abuses by employers. Non-unionized workers faced poor working conditions, overtime without pay, and even on the job injuries. Union membership was quite attractive then. But modern labor laws (most put in place at the behest of unions) and the threat of losing a relatively high-paying job have made union membership dwindle.

One industry that has held on to the the idea of a union is the film industry. The Writers Guild of America represents film and television writers and employees of television and radio stations. The organization provides benefits, representation, and support to writers in an industry that, much like technology, is ever-changing and evolving.

On the other end of the spectrum are professional associations, like the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association. These organizations were formed by wealthy, elite professionals who were worried about unskilled workers marring the reputation of their trades and generating unfair competition. Attorneys and doctors have banded together to establish an association and, most importantly, demanded regulatory laws be put in place that required licensing according to their standards.

Modern programmers are in an awkward middle ground of class and history that makes the formation of union, association bodies, or similar entities unlikely. Job availability and the promise of upward mobility as a reward for skilled work make it seem like programmers do not need to unionize to prevent life-threatening abuses or even just disrespect of their time, like the Writers Guild. Whether that is actually the case is up for debate.

At the same time, programmers are generally not as wealthy or politicized as some other professions, such as television writers. This makes it more difficult for them to form an association and demand enforcement of regulations. Furthermore, unlike doctors and lawyers, programming as a career has a lower barrier to entry, making it harder to obtain alignment on professional standards from employers.

Some programmers don’t see the need at all. One of our own software platform engineers here at Izenda, when asked why he thought most programmers don’t join unions, replied “Our biggest danger is carpal tunnel. We don’t need a union.” While this may be true at Izenda, perhaps many programmers are in much different situations but still feel as though a union wouldn’t ultimately benefit them.

What Programmers Lose, And Gain, By Not Having Unions

Of the few programmers who are aware of the options available to them, most do not even consider joining the alternatives. Most programmers are more concerned with keeping their jobs than they are with pioneering change in their work environment.

Without the legal assistance most unions provide, programmers could easily be forced to accept unfair legal consequences. At the very least, a union could serve as a sort of safeguard against unfair practices.

Still, modern employers are incredibly resistant to any form of worker organization. The shuttering of two established New York papers shows that employers would rather go for scorched earth than try to bargain collectively with union members. Many programmers also believe they work in a meritocracy where hard work will eventually be rewarded. To them, the risks of unionization appear far greater than the rewards.

However, with a unionized group, change seems to be much more attainable. At the end of 2007, the Writers Guild of America member called a strike against all television networks and cable channels in protest over shared revenues. Almost four months later, the strike ended with the Writers Guild striking a deal with television networks.

Ultimately, programmers might benefit from any sort of organizing even if it just meant profession-wide discussions and a collective insurance pool. As for calling the organization a union? The odds seem staunchly against it, so for now, most programmers will likely just focus on their familiar SQL unions.

38 Comments

  • Yurko says:

    Where I come from unions ruin every company they’re in. They’re led by vile, greedy and unproductive people. I’m yet to see ONE example of that abomination doing any good. Having said that, please keep in mind that programmers are THE MOST COURTED profession today. They don’t need no stinking union to keep their job, because their employer is the one who’s afraid they’ll leave. To conclude – unions are horse manure, no one, and especially programmers needs more horse manure in their professional lives.

  • Ruben says:

    I thought of C++ union, odd.

  • Normann Aa. Nielsen says:

    Quite interesting that articles like this still appear from time to time. I imagine that the writer has only knowledge of the world inside of USA, and not so much outside of it. The claim that ” collective bargaining, strikes and wage negotiation are unheard of in the tech industry” is really not true in the part of the world where I live (Denmark, Europe).

    I would like to point out that at least in my country we have a union specific to IT-programmers, analysts, architects and other IT-personel. The unions name is PROSA (see: https://www.prosa.dk/?id=6745 for information) and has existed since 1969. Please take a look on its home page and feel free to contact the union for more information and / or coorpation.

  • William Douglas says:

    Union? They’d be fired & outsourced faster than you could say “Taj Mahal”.

  • Bob W Wiegers says:

    AI will replace most programmers. Yes it’s coming!

  • Bob says:

    unions are a joke, i was glad to leave them behind in the 70’s and 80’s – the only people who need them are ones who aint good at their jobs and want someone else to fight battles for them to try get pay parity with those that are.

  • “Most workers do not have access to the benefits a typical trade union would offer, such as legal representation and pensions.” Legal representation? Who needs it? If a person believes they have been treated unfairly, they can hire a lawyer. As for pensions, I used to have an active one, it was replaced by a 401k (the pension continues to grow despite no new contributions). Unions might help set a minimum wage for programmers that appeal to new people, but would severely limit the high end for seasoned people. No thanks.

  • D Shaw says:

    No one needs a union, unless you want to pay someone for destroying your workplace and making your life miserable.
    Unions are parasites on society. I will leave technology and go back to the farm before I would even consider being enslaved to a union.

  • D Shaw says:

    To Virgil Bierschwale, unions are not the solution. They will only make things worse.
    Your best solution is to force legislatures to eliminate the one-sided Fair Trade agreements (like NAFTA) and replace them with agreements that do not put the U.S.A. in a subordinate position. Unions will only take your money and nothing will change.

  • Chris Hills says:

    There is not need for a Union or to give it it’s correct title a Trade Union. For Professional SW people they would be looking at a Professional institute such as the BCS or IET in the UK. this puts Professional SW Engineers on a par with Doctors Lawyers and other professionals.

    Well programmers/coders may want to sink to a Union but I will pass on that and remain a Professional (Software) Engineer

  • Joe Termine says:

    I think a better title for this post would be “what do programmers gain or lose from unionizing?” as the post does not state a premise or argue whether programmers need a union. I argue that they do not because there are other ways for them get what they want from employers in the US. One way is that programmers can access their own capital, create their own organizations and negotiate the services they provide with customers just like any other professionals. Since we cannot compel customers to buy what they don’t want, programmers are kept in check with realistic demands upon them. If we wanted to help programmers secure better outcomes, we might do so by ensuring they have access to their own capital and don’t have to be employed to use it. Being able to get access to healthcare and bear the risk of being unable to work due to illness — $16k in insurance normally paid by an employer — without having to work for an employer would go a long toward this goal. More capital loaned or invested by people outside of Silicon Valley to developers in those flyover states would also help. Maybe programmers need their own investment bank?

  • Dolan Tramp says:

    Short answer: Yes.

    Long answer: Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesssssssssssss.

    There may not be great public support for unions in the US and A, home of deregulation at any cost, but they serve their members well in most every other first world country. Eventually we’ll smell the bacon and fall in line. Temporarily embarrassed millionaires and such. Fools.

  • Phillip Kent says:

    Welcome to the great United States of America, where your ability to get decent work, or medical care for yourself or your family, will be entirely determined by the amount of cash that you have in your pocket.
    There are dysfunctional and unhelpful cases of trade unions in every country, but the role of the trades union is legally established and socially valued in most countries in the world.

  • Jeff Jones says:

    Unions once were important in protecting the lives of workers. Times and laws in the US changed, and unions have become nothing but leeches on the backs of the workers they represent.

    Unions are why manufacturers fled the Northern states for the South and West where states are “right to work”. Unions are only good for the sorriest workers today. I would never join a union unless forced to at gunpoint by some socialist government.

    One step we need to improve overall quality in the software we make and the attributes of our jobs is:
    Drastically reduce the number of H-1B visas issued, and let most of the current ones expire. There are plenty of qualified Americans to hold STEM jobs, but employers too often want an artificially lowered labor rate instead of a free market labor rate by bring in in cheap foreign labor that is, in reality, usually less qualified. The employers sacrifice quality for short-term quarterly profit goals that evaporate once the shoddy software has to be fixed by Americans.

  • Helder Machado says:

    Yes We Need. In Portugal where I live there is no Union to Programmers. There is a Union to Engineers but is not the same.

  • Chuck Johnson says:

    From the Wall Street Journal 15JAN2018

    “Organized labor has a long history of corruption, but federal records show it’s not improving. In the past two years a total of 143 labor leaders and staffers have pleaded guilty or been convicted of federal crimes, according to the Labor Department’s recently updated disclosures on criminal enforcement actions.

    The federal government’s felonious list includes the presidents of more than 30 union locals, as well as more than 60 officials who held a treasurer or secretary-treasurer post. The crimes overwhelmingly involve top brass stealing from the union, and the incidents range from pilfered thousands to multi-million-dollar embezzlements. Union members are the victims.”

  • Mike says:

    In general, when a Union is involved the only one that benefits is the Union. They suck so much off everyone’s paychecks and provide such a existent benefit and convince the members that they need to demand much more than the company can provide and then drive them out of business. Forget them!!

  • Daniel says:

    Unions are the legal mafia.

  • Derek says:

    Unions are the worst form of Cronyism. I know as someone from Pittsburgh where Unions are supreme in just about every industry (Except Software Thank Heavens!). I cut my teeth there and moved to Texas where the Pay is better and the Taxes are lower! Back on to the subject.

    Unions are Heavy at the top (Delegates, Reps, etc) with people that don’t do anything but collect a check and cause trouble with your employer and split the workforce. When the employer (Read: The guy who is PAYING YOU to deliver software to him/her) is mad with the workforce, either they are too expensive, to disruptive, aren’t getting the work done for various reasons, they will simply move on to someone/something else. Think Foreign Labor/AI. AI is real btw, and will be writing most/all code in 20 years. Mark my words. Better get ready with the next big thing now…
    Unions all split the workforce with divisive issues that no one really cares about but still vote on anyway.
    Unions are Bad news all around and I for one am Glad I don’t have to deal with them and there thugish tactics Ever!

  • Andy says:

    Union for programmers? Does anyone think for a second this would not lead to basically raising the GDP of India by 10x given the absolute certainty it would lead to way more outsourcing of developer jobs than what already exists today?

  • Kurt Guntheroth says:

    Programmers don’t need a union… until their job is outsourced. They don’t need a union until they turn 50 and can’t get work. Until their manager starts leering at them and suggests they give him a massage. Until their employer cuts corners on a contract and creates software with severe safety or privacy concerns. Until their legislature enacts laws permitting unlimited, unpaid or poorly paid overtime, which is the norm for all tech workers. Until the fruits of programmers’ labor flow so unevenly into the pockets of their corporate masters.

    Oh yes, programmers need a union. But not a union like the Teamsters. Not every union is subject to the legendary abuses of the largest old-line trade unions. A union could support professional standards. It could digitally dispatch work to union members. It could vett worker experience.

  • Sergio Samayoa says:

    S**t NO!

    If they existed we were codng in COBOL, any new programming language would be banned by union to protect “COBOL programmer’s jobs”.

    Don’t be mediocre!

  • William Brinkman says:

    Unions could solve the problem of unpaid overtime.

  • Mike says:

    Don’t want unions. Too much beauracracy involved, and it’s bad for the GPL. Just GPL all the code.

  • Heather Twist says:

    Yes, we need unions. And watchdogs watching the unions. The USA was founded on greed … the greed of the countries who founded colonies to make money for them … and greed runs everything from the government to the corporations. Individuals don’t have the ability to fight back unless they form their own “corporation”.
    I’ve been sitting back and watching as our company was snapped up by another company. The other company fired loads of old-timers (esp. the old-timers, who make more money and cost more in health care), started out-sourcing much of the work, and expecting everyone to work lots of unpaid overtime. When they fire someone, they walk them out of the building immediately, and most of the time no one even knows until the person doesn’t show up for a meeting.
    The new owners are not shy in proclaiming that their goal is to make lots and lots of money. They constantly change “workflow” to use cheaper tools and cheaper people, which makes it hard to get anything done. The workplace went from a happy place to doom and gloom, but there are not a lot of programming shops in the area.
    So yes, if we want to maintain a good work environment, we need unions. The top shops may treat their employees fairly, but you can’t count on it.

  • Keith says:

    Nope. Early in my career I was hired as a software engineer with General Electric in Camden NJ. Like it or not I was represented by the Association of Scientists and Professional Engineering Personnel (ASPEP), hitherto referred to as “the union”. It sucked. Even if you opted out of the dues (which I did), you were still subject to their collective bargaining. That means everybody gets the same 1% raise regardless of merit (so if your skills are at best mediocre, you should probably go for it). And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, the company LOVES it. Why? They don’t have to deal with the rank and file, just the union reps. Ask for a raise and your manager will say “Gee I’d love to give you the raise, you deserve it! But the union won’t let me.”. On the plus side, they did host a free monthly prime rib dinner for those that paid dues. I’m sure it was awesome.

  • David Liu says:

    Unions are for jobs that will soon be replaced by machines.

  • Dave In Arizona says:

    No.

  • H.M. says:

    The childish prejudices of most people commenting here (most of whom obviously have never lived in a society with functioning unions, let alone knwon any members and what they get and dont get from it) is astonishing.

  • Bill Roth says:

    I think this is a good idea insofar as there are some companies can make life miserable for devs, and they are powerless is some places to do anything. In the US, we have the a “right of association” enshrined in our body of law. I don’t see why not. Now, where I work, a large virtualization company in Silicon Valley, they treat us well, so, IMO, its not necessary. But one hears stories about the gaming industry and some startups where this would be likely. I support unions as a protecting against employee abuse.

  • Ken Ambrose says:

    Our industry needs licensing a lot more than it needs unions. In this business anyone can claim to any IT expertise, they can call themselves anything they want, fake their resumes to their heart’s content, use fake degrees from India and Pakistan, rampant cheating for even the vendor certifications.

    Our industry is a farce.

  • Richard says:

    Its interesting that the author touts the success of the Writers Guild after 4 months on strike. So what happened after they came back to work? They finished the current season and the networks started reality TV 24/7. Where there used to be sitcoms, dramas, and made for TV series now its reality TV. No Writers Guild needed.

  • Doc Savage says:

    Fascinating, so many anecdotal reasons for NOT having a union for programmers, yet very few intelligent or logical explanations to support that position. Really boys, maybe you should put a little more time into researching the facts, similar to the effort you use making your own beer.
    Fact – Despite little or no union representation in general, American and Canadian IT jobs have been outsourced by the millions since 1995 when Microsoft and other large companies first pushed the idea for it. Despite the increased requirement for highly skilled labor as a consequence of “skill-biased technological change” (SBTC), wages have either stagnated or decreased relative to the GDP and productivity levels. Median income levels within the IT field have only increased $6,000 since 1970 for men, $13,000 for women, who are still earning on average of $10,000 less than men, while during the same period executive and board member compensation has risen 500% to 900%.

    Regardless of some of the weak arguments presented by respondents to this article, the facts are plain, notwithstanding their high minded notions and attempts at presenting themselves as the great minds of technology and business, most IT workers haven’t a clue when it concerns their ability to negotiate better compensation for themselves and their technology associates. They should leave it to the collective bargaining professionals who are more aware and more educated concerning this topic. Until then they will continue to be wage slaves like the rest of the working class.

    And for those who would choose to use some fallacious argument to counter these points, here are the websites for the information I am presenting built by the professionals that know the business of data gathering and dissemination concerning the topic. And please don’t be one of those fools who uses Ad Hominem attacks to try to discredit the content either, I have 36 years as a technologist and IT professional, working both Union and non-Union jobs in and out of IT, before then I worked manual labor jobs for 10 years, two of them union jobs.

    http://www.naceweb.org/job-market/compensation/salary-trends-through-salary-survey-a-historical-perspective-on-starting-salaries-for-new-college-graduates/
    http://davidcard.berkeley.edu/papers/tech%20wage%20inequ.pdf
    https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/66836/900279-The-Labor-Market-for-Information-Technology-Workers.pdf
    https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/acs/acs-35.pdf

  • Phil Hartfield says:

    You know who writes AI? Programmers that’s who. You know who’s gonna be taken care of by AI in the future? Their creators, that’s who. AI’s will rule the world and Programmers will be right there with them.

    Muwahahaha!!

  • George Seremetidis says:

    People who are against trade unions, are those who profit from the exploitation of workers and those who enjoy the rewards unions have achieved for the workers but think those rights were simply given to them as a right..

    Most of the posters are in the latter category.

  • Aziel Ferguson says:

    I am also concerned that Programmers, and that branch of Technology in general, does not have much of a lobbying arm, unlike the AMA, the BAR, etc. In addition to negotiations, there are definitely some legal causes that we could all contribute to and protect our interests. This kind of union would net positive I would think, regardless of your stance on unions in general.

  • Samuel says:

    I hate to say that, but programmers need a union ASAP. Union is the only instrument that can protect us from foreign programmers’ invasion. Of course everything depends on how it’s done. It does not have to be a corrupt institution. And, of course, Google and others will fight it. Trump will be gone and then what? you think corrupt politicians will be really having our interests in their hearts? dream on

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