Workers of The IT World, Unite!

IT workers banding together to form unions? How 20th century. A recent report from the University of Illinois at Chicago reveals that 403,300 jobs were lost in the IT sector from March 2001 to April 2004 (download the report at QuickLink a5130). And the majority of the positions were lost after the IT recession came to an official end in November 2001.

The combination of outsourcing and uncertainty over the future of business growth probably means there won't be a rush to hire lots of IT staffers, even if the U.S. economy starts humming again. Microsoft this week will break ground for a new facility in -- you guessed it -- Hyderabad, India. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that; labor and capital flow where they can be efficiently employed. But it seems odd that U.S. IT workers are only now waking up to the threat of offshore labor and tightfisted corporate budgets.

Sure, there have been political efforts to cut the number of foreign workers in the U.S. and a campaign to tar and feather companies that move work to lower-cost regions halfway around the globe. But only in numbers will IT workers have the clout they need to strike a chord with policy-makers and corporate officials.

Over the years, the benefits of working under union rules have been blurred by the back-and-forth about the abuses of unions in the workplace. But unions working together with management can make a positive difference for workers, customers and investors. This was best demonstrated years ago, when Owen D. Young, chairman of General Electric from 1922 to 1939 and creator of Radio Corporation of America (the "IT" leader at the time), pushed for economic and welfare programs to counter the effects of the Great Depression on workers.

Today, there are organizations trying to increase the ranks of the represented among the employees of major IT companies. The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, founded in 1998 and affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, has been active at the state and federal levels. Its main issue is outsourcing, but it's also involved in the mundane area of collective bargaining.

That's important as well, because most IT workers aren't part of the elite group earning six-figure salaries. Indeed, there are many part-time and contract workers who don't receive health or pension benefits and are seldom represented at the bargaining table. In fact, for many IT workers, there isn't a bargaining table.

To a great extent, the individual, professional and skilled nature of many IT jobs provides an intellectual security blanket that has helped programmers, system technicians and other IT managers remain blissfully ignorant of the slow leak of jobs to their comparably skilled but lower-paid colleagues overseas. But the voice of the individual is currently outweighed by the vast cost savings that outsourcing represents to some companies. And the calls by unions to debate and explore remedies to sustain our domestic IT industry can't carry the day unless they are backed by the IT workers whose fortunes and futures are at stake.

Without union representation, IT workers will have to take what is given them, and that might not be such a good deal.

Pimm Fox is a London-based journalist. Contact him at pimmfox@pacbell.net.

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