Why 95 Percent of Software Engineers Lose Nothing By Unionizing

By michaelochurch

Should software engineers unionize?

I can’t give a simple answer to this. There are advantages and disadvantages to enrolling in a collective bargaining arrangement. If the disadvantages didn’t exist, or weren’t considerable in some situations, everyone would unionize. So, we need to take both sides seriously.

The upshots of collective bargaining are: better compensation on average, better job security, better working conditions, and more protection against managerial adversity. There are a lot of improvements to employment that can only be made with collective negotiation. An individual employee who requested guaranteed severance, the right to appeal performance reviews, transparency in reference-checking and internal transfer, and waiving of onerous (and effectively nonconsensual) but common terms in contracts– e.g., mandatory arbitration provisions, non-competition and non-solicitation agreements, anti-moonlighting provisions– would be laughed out of the building. No individual can negotiate against these terms– it is, for example, embarrassing for an individual to discuss what rights she has if a manager gives a negative performance review– but unions can.

So what are the downsides of unionization? Possible losses of autonomy. Often, an increase in bureaucracy (but most often a tolerable one). Union dues, though usually those are minimal in comparison to the wage gains the unions achieve. Possible declines in upper-tier salaries as compensation moves toward the middle– however, not all unions regulate compensation; for example, unions for athletes, actors, and screenwriters do not seem to have this problem.

There are a small number individuals in software who would not benefit from unions, and there are a few firms (mostly small, or outside of the for-profit sector) that do not need them.

To wit, if you’re a high-frequency trader making $1 million per year, you probably do not need a union– free agency is working well for you– and you may not want one.

And, if you work in a federally-funded research lab that pays for your graduate education, and that allows you to publish papers, attend conferences, and perform original research on working time, then you probably don’t need a union.

If you’re a Principal Engineer at a “Big N” technology company, making $500,000 per year, who picks and chooses his projects– you’ve never even heard of Jira– and wakes up every morning excited to implement the ideas he dreamt about over night… you may not need a union.

If your boss is personally invested in your career, so much so that the only thing that could prevent you from making senior management within 5 years would be to commit some grievous crime… then you might not want to unionize.

If you’re anyone else– if you’re part of that other 95+ percent, probably 99+ percent; the IT peons– then, chances are, you lose nothing by unionizing.

For example: if you have to justify weeks or days of your working time; if you work on Jira tickets rather than choosing and defining your own projects; if you know for sure that you’re never going to be promoted; if your work is business-driven and you have little or no working time to spend on your own technical interests… then you are hopelessly nuts if you are not in favor of unionization.

Here’s why I say that. If you’re the typical, low-status, open-plan programmer, forced to interview for his own job every morning in “Daily Scrum”, then all the bad things that unions can bring have already happened at your job. Whatever negatives unions might bring– bureaucracy, reduced autonomy, lower status of the profession– have already occurred and are therefore moot.

Is there a risk that a union will introduce bureaucracy and reduce worker autonomy? Yes; sometimes that happens. But, engineers under Jira, Scrum, and Agile (technological surveillance) already have so little autonomy that there’s nothing to lose.

Might a union will create an adversarial climate between management and the work force? Sure. But, most software engineers are low-status workers whose jobs their bosses would gladly ship overseas, and who live under the surveillance described above. They’ll be fired as soon as their performance dips, or a cheaper worker comes on the market, or they piss the wrong person off. The adversarial climate exists. Again, nothing to lose.

Do unions tend to pull compensation toward the middle (or, more accurately, the upper middle)? Of course, they do. Software engineers making $500,000 per year might not see a use for unions. That said, any engineer who works on “user stories” is highly unlikely to be anywhere close to that number, and within her current company, never will be. The same applies: nothing to lose.

What do unions do? For good and bad, they commoditize work. The technician, artisan, or engineer, once a union comes in, is no longer fully a creative, unique, lover-of-the-trade (amateur, in the original sense) valued for his intangible, cultural, and long-term (looking back and forward) importance to the organization. Nope, he’s a worker, selling time or labor for money. If both you and your employer believe your work is not a commodity– this attitude still exists in some corners of academia, and in some government agencies– then you might not want to involve a union, since unions are designed to negotiate commodity work.

Let’s be honest, though. If you’re the typical software engineer, then your work has already been commoditized. Your bosses are comparing your salaries to those in countries where drinking water is a luxury. Commoditizing your work is, quite often, your employer’s job. Middle managers are there to reduce risk, and that includes diminishing reliance on singular, high-value individuals. Running a company, if possible, on “commodity” (average) talent isn’t good for us highly-capable people; but it is, when possible, good middle management.

Chances are, you don’t get to pick and choose your projects because “product managers” have better ideas than you (so says the company) about how you should spend your time. You’re told that “story points” and “velocity” aren’t used as performance measures, but when times get tough, they very much are. Open your eyes; when middle managers say that Agile is there to “spot impediments”, what they mean is that it makes it easier and quicker for them to fire people.

A union will also commoditize your work– this lies behind all the objections to them– but it will try to do so in a fair way. Most employers– in private-sector technology, the vast majority of them– will commoditize your work just as readily, but in an unfair way. Which one wins? I think it’s obvious.

If you’ve been indoctrinated, you might think that unions are only valuable for the stragglers and the unambitious, and that the services they offer to workers are useless to average, but less high, performers. False. “I’ve never been fired,” you say. “I could get another job next week,” you say. “The working world is just,” you say.

Most people hope never to face managerial adversity. I have, so I know how it works. When it develops, things start happening fast. The worker is usually unprepared. In fact, he’s at a disadvantage. The manager has the right to use “working time” to wage the political fight– because “managing people out” is literally part of his job– while the worker has to sustain a 40-hour effort in addition to playing the political side-game of fighting the adversity or PIP. It’s the sort of ugly, brutal fight that managers understand from experience (although even most managers dislike the process) and, because they choose the time and place of each confrontation, have every advantage possible. The worker thinks it’s a “catch up” meeting because that’s what the calendar says. A stranger from HR is there: it’s an ambush. Two witnesses against one, and because corporate fascism-lite is under-regulated in our country, the employee does not have the right to an attorney, nor to remain silent.

What might be able to counterbalance such disadvantages? Oh, right. A union.

What, though, if you’re happy with your compensation and don’t consider yourself a low performer? Do you still need a union?

Saying “I don’t need a union because I’m a high performer” is like saying “I don’t need to know about self-defense, because I’m so good-looking no one would ever attack me.” Real talk: that meth-addicted, drunk scumbag does not care one whit for your pretty face, buddy. Run if you at all can; avoid the fight if he’ll listen to reason; but, defend yourself if you must.

Have you, dear reader, been in a street fight? I don’t mean a boxing match, a prize fight where there are still rules, or a childhood or middle-school fight that ends once one person has won. I’m talking about a real adult fistfight– also known as: for the attacker, an assault; for the defender, a self-defense situation– where multiple assailants, deadly weapons, and continued (and possibly lethal) violence after defeat are serious possibilities? I, personally, have not.

Most people haven’t. I’ve studied combat enough to know that most people (including, quite possibly, me) have no idea what the fuck to do when such a situation emerges. Many victims freeze. Given that an average street fight is over in about ten seconds– after that point, it’s more of a one-sided beatdown of the loser– that’s deadly. But it’s something that untrained humans are not well-equipped to handle.

Even people with excellent self-defense training avoid street fights– there are too many bad things that can happen, and nothing good. Sometimes, they lose. Why? Because their training, mostly oriented around friendly sparring, has them primed to stop short of hurting the assailant. That’s noble, but against someone who will bite and eye-gouge and resort to murder, this is a disadvantage.

What sorts of people are experienced with street fights (not sparring)? Criminals, reprobates, psychopaths…. Thugs. They’ve been in a few. Pain that would stall or incapacitate the uninitiated (that is, most of us) doesn’t faze them; they may be on drugs. They’ll do anything to win. They’ve stomped on necks and heads; they’ve pulled knives and guns; they’ve possibly committed sexual assaults against their victims. They know and choose the venue. They select the target and the time. They may have friends waiting to get in on the action. They may have weapons. They know almost everything about the situation they’re about the enter and, most of the time, their target knows nothing.

The odds for an untrained defender, in an unanticipated self-defense situation, are extremely poor.

It’s the same in the corporate world, when it comes to managerial adversity. Most workers think they’re decent performers– and, quite often, they are– and when they’re hit out of the blue with a PIP, they don’t know what’s going on. Was it a performance problem? Often, no. Perhaps the manager found a 2013 blog post and disliked the employee’s political views or religion. Perhaps, as is usual in private-sector technology, the company dishonestly represented a layoff as a rash of performance-based firings. Perhaps the employee is working in good faith, but performing poorly for reasons that aren’t her fault: poor project/person fit, or life events like health issues, sick parents, or divorce. Perhaps some stranger three levels up made the call, to free up a spot for his nephew, and the hapless middle manager got stuck doing the paperwork.

The corporate world is a might-makes-right system where there is no sense of ethics. There is no line between abuse of power and power as those on top see it; what we plebeians call “abuse”, they call “power”; what use would power have, they ask, if there were rules put on it?

People suffer all sorts of career punishments– PIPs, firings, bad references, damaged reputations– for reasons that aren’t their fault. The idea that only bad workers end up in this situation is analogous to the idea that the only people who can be assaulted on the streets are those who asked for it.

As in a street fight, the odds are overwhelmingly bad for an employee under managerial adversity. The other side has more information, more power, and more experience. Management and HR have done this before. The worker? It’s likely her first or second time.

In a non-union, private-sector organization like the typical technology company, to be an employee is to walk down the streets, alone, at 2:30 in the morning.

For everything one can learn in a self-defense class– proper fighting techniques improve one’s chances from impossible to merely undesirable– the best defense is to avoid dangerous places altogether. In the corporate world, that’s not possible. This is a country where at-will employment is the law of the land, so every time and every place is dangerous. Every street should be considered a slum; it’s always 2:30 in the morning.

If one must go into a dangerous place, what’s the best means of defense? The same rules that apply in bear country: don’t go alone. Wild animals rarely attack humans in groups, and criminals tend to be similar. But the corporate system is designed to isolate those it wishes to target. In the meetings that unfold under managerial adversity, the boss can bring in whoever he wants– HR, higher-level bosses, “Scrum Masters” and miscellaneous enforcers, even his 9-year-old son to laugh at the poor worker– while the target can bring in… only himself.

I do not intend to peddle illusions. Unions aren’t perfect. They aren’t good in all situations. However, most of private-sector technology needs them. Why? Because they allow the worker to exercise his right not to go alone. The HR tactics (e.g., stack ranking, performance surveillance, constructive dismissal) that are so common in technology companies to have become accepted practices would simply not survive under a decent union.

The average non-managerial white-collar worker has never been in the street fight of managerial adversity. Unions have. They know exactly what to do– and what not to do– when a situation turns nasty. Fights, albeit for the side of good, are much of what they do.

Again, if you’re in that elite cadre of software programmers who get to work on whatever they want, who find $400/hour consulting work just by asking for it in a tweet, and whose bosses see them as future leaders of the company… then you’re probably not reading my blog for career advice. On the other hand, if you’re in that other 95-plus (to be honest, it’s probably 99-plus) percent, you should unionize. All the bureaucracy and commoditization that you fear might come from a union is already around you; you can’t make it go away, so the best thing to do is to make it fair.