rebecca l. eisenberg on Thu, 4 Jun 1998 00:05:11 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> unions in high tech

This column has brought me so much hell from execs that I figure it is a
good candidate for <nettime>.



Net Skink
By Rebecca Lynn Eisenberg
San Francisco Examiner
Sunday, May 31, 1998

High-tech workers need to unionize

When programmers started e-mailing me over the past few weeks, begging me
to denounce the Senate's recent decision to grant more work visas to
foreign nationals seeking high-tech employment, I was loath to run to their

Computer programmers, it seemed to me, did not need my help. They complain
about long hours, but arrive at work at noon. They complain about low pay,
but earn twice the national average. They gripe about being forced to carry
cell phones, yet get wireless service for free -- not to mention stock
options, top-notch health care, 401(k) plans and loaner laptop computers.

Under-educated, overpaid, under-age white males, they start new companies,
hire their buddies and wake up millionaires a la Netscape's Marc Andreessen.

Surprisingly, in this case the programmers were right: The Senate H-1B visa
decision did do them an injustice, but they still don't need my help. They
need labor unions. If this debate over the so-called high-tech worker
shortage does not stir them to organize, perhaps nothing else will.

Unions for professional software engineers? The idea is not as crazy as it

Although life for some programmers might look plush, many others sing the
blues. Strong-armed to take options in lieu of paychecks, they are often
left empty-handed when the business ultimately tanks, which it does in many

Meanwhile, the large paychecks paid by big software companies yield much
more humble hourly wages when divided by the number of hours worked --
without overtime pay, of course. Constantly pushed to publish products by
unreasonably early deadlines, software engineers have grown accustomed to
pulling strings of "all-nighters" near launch-time, yet still are forced to
release products before they're ready.

Perhaps most nefariously, as programmers grow older, their job security
plummets. Any stroll through a high-tech company reveals that the work
force is very young. Norman Matloff, computer science professor at
UC-Davis, confirmed this common observation in an an April report: Five
years after finishing college, about 60 percent of computer science
graduates are working as programmers; at 15 years the figure drops to 34
percent, and at 20 years it's a mere 19 percent.

Personal testimonials are even more powerful than the statistics. "There
were 10 situations where I interviewed and was turned down because I was
not a good fit," said a 62-year-old computer programmer with 30 years of
engineering experience in Silicon Valley, who preferred to remain nameless.
"I work in food service now. I deliver a lot of pizzas to high-tech
companies. We (cater) a lot of high-tech parties. Anybody with two eyes in
their head can canvass the meetings and parties and see that in many
companies there are few people who are over age 40," he said.

The programmer described a conversation he overheard at a recent company
event: "Age became an important topic of discussion at this mid-day
meeting, and they decided that the oldest person in their section of the
company was 29."

These observations are corroborated by Matloff's study: Most software
companies classify programmers and systems analysts with six years of
experience as senior even though they usually are no older than 28.

Older employees are more expensive. Because they are more likely to have
families, for example, their benefits cost more and they are less likely to
tolerate 80-hour work weeks than recent college graduates.

And while unemployment rates for older workers are high -- 17 percent for
programmers over age 50 as of August, Matloff said, the numbers tell only
part of the story.

"I get rather annoyed at unemployment statistics," the programmer said.
"They might be talking about unemployment, but they are not talking about
underemployment. Former high-tech people have long since exhausted their
unemployment benefits or are employed at something that they did not expect
to be doing at their age."

Meanwhile, he said, as a temporary employee "I have sat through meetings
where managers go out of their way to report that they had hired new
permanent employees, stressing that they would be working as soon as they
had their visas straightened out. Politically it seemed very important for
them to stress this."

Is this because H-1B status employees would work more hours for less money?
"That was my distinct impression," he said.

Would this programmer join a union? "I am not sure if 'union' is the right
word, but I definitely think that something should be done," he said.

"Union" is the right word, said Amy Dean, chief executive director of the
South Bay AFL-CIO Central Labor Council (, which represents
the interests of labor, both full-time and contingent, in Silicon Valley.
"It always makes sense for working people to come together for purposes of
bargaining collectively to improve their workplace situation."

Unions can provide job security for workers with seniority, which is
essential for older workers in the youth-biased software industry, Dean
said. "There is no question that the industry (is) looking at older workers
as though they are disposable," she said. "They have become too costly, and
now after they have given the best of their lives to the company, the
company decides that it is too expensive to keep them on board."

Additionally, unions could benefit workers of all ages by requiring
companies to look internally or locally before hiring foreign workers on
visas. If programmers were organized, Dean said, "They could insist on what
portion of the company's jobs go to people in-house, and they could insist
that X percent of jobs be tagged for people that are already part of the

Furthermore, unions could convince companies to train workers, said Dean.
"Workers would have means to sit down with the employers and say, 'We think
that there should be X number of dollars spent on training to bring us up
and elevate our skill base so that we can apply to jobs being given to
people from other parts of the world.' "

"This H-1B visa issue is all about trying to undercut the wage and benefit
rate of current American workers," Dean said. With a union, technology
workers could insist on a wage and benefit standard as opposed to allowing
companies "to bring in workers that are going to undercut that standard."

That's fine for programmers who are employed full time, but traditionally
unions have not been available for contingent workers, who, like the
programmer above, work part time or are contracted to work on short- or
long-term projects. Because contingent workers now comprise 27-40 percent
of the Silicon Valley work force (and growing), according to the National
Planning Association in Washington, D.C., the Central Labor Council is
upgrading its services to serve them better.

"We are building an organization that people will be able to join to
receive benefits, including health and pension," which independent
contractors usually don't get, Dean said. "It will also provide training
and skills certification, and it will advocate within the temporary-help
industry to improve conditions for people who are working on a part-time or
contingent basis."

While this approach is not traditional unionization, Dean conceded, "we
know that in the new economy, we will need these new types of

In the meantime, Dean urged all high-tech workers to vote against
Proposition 226 on Tuesday. That proposed law, she said, would "eliminate
the right of workers to bundle together their nickels and dimes to have a
voice in the political process" -- including opposing future attempts to
bring in more foreign programmers. "If workers cannot combine their
resources, they have no chance to stand up to big corporations and
organized business," which outspend labor 11 to one, Dean said.

In all these ways and more, said Dean, "History shows that when people band
together, they do better than they would if going it alone."

The software industry certainly knows the power of banding together --
after all, it was the powerful lobbying efforts of its trade organization,
the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), that succeeded in
pushing companies' requests for more foreign labor through the Senate.

Programmers -- both young and old -- deserve equally strong representation,
which they can find in unions. If the industry is scared by the so-called
high-tech worker shortage, imagine the persuasive power of engineers on

Copyright 1998 SF Examiner & Rebecca Lynn Eisenberg
All Rights Reserved.

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