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.