Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Historical Turning Points

It is hard (most of the time) to recognize a historical turning point as you are living it. I certainly didn’t recognize a major one in my life -- the 1981 PATCO strike. Back then, strikes weren’t an uncommon event. Perhaps I was too young to recognize the significance of it at the time. I don’t think many did though. Certainly not the people I hung out with.

It was only later that the true significance of that strike became clear. By now, it should be obvious to everyone -- certainly to the group of people that read this blog anyway. I ran across another example of it today in the Atlantic.

Why IT Workers Should Unionize

”So why are tech nerds reluctant to organize? Maybe there's something inherent to computer programming that creates and reinforces ardent individualism. Or maybe the addictive appeal of completing intellectually challenging work on a daily basis is reward enough that compensation becomes an afterthought.

But technology workers' hesitance to unionize is not purely a reflection of their personalities, but also likely a consequence of the disregard for unions and technology in the era following the Air Traffic Controllers Strike of 1981.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something like that in the last 25 years. But now, it’s different. We have reached one of those historical turning points I was talking about. And unlike the PATCO strike, this one is incredibly easy to see. I’m pretty sure that everyone in America recognizes The Great Recession is history -- big history.

It’s obvious that The Great Depression was big history. The Great Recession is the biggest thing since. And it ain’t over. But I sense even more is at work. Specifically, workers have come to recognize how neglected they have become. The statistics proving that are entering the mainstream of public debate. The economic inequality has become too great to ignore. While Big Business hoards $2 trillion in cash (over twice the amount of the stimulus package), the unemployed husband their savings -- assuming they have any left -- while their house depreciates in value -- assuming they haven’t already lost it in a foreclosure.

In short, there are at least 24 million or so workers out there right now that might start thinking unions aren’t such a bad thing after all. There’s even an IT worker at the Atlantic telling other IT workers they should join a union.

”If the air traffic controllers' strike was a failure of labor relations, it wasn't because of the unimportance of technical skills; it was the under-appreciation of them. Information technology workers tend to trivialize what they do -- out of humility or just to make complex tasks more approachable -- to the extent that they never speak up for themselves. They are more likely to complain about the user interface design on a software application than their own lot in life.

In a way, it's a very selfless worldview where rational accomplishment is a goal in and of itself, there's no need for power, and all anybody needs in life is access to information. But at a certain point, freedom of information can only go so far. Improving peoples' lives requires access to power, even if the bureaucratic processes involved in achieving that power are completely abhorrent to the independent computer programmer lifestyle.”

Pardon the pun but, people are going to have to deprogram themselves from all the propaganda they’ve been fed about unions for the last 30 years. Workers will have to band together if they have any hope of changing the current situation.

NATCA -- the National Air Traffic Controllers Association -- could be a leader in this effort. But it requires action. It requires commitment. And yes, it requires some bravery. Nothing will happen without preparation and sacrifice.

Currently, there are two targets of opportunity approaching.

The National Aeronautic Association is going to honor former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. This is a woman whose only significant accomplishments were to implement a “B scale” for new controllers, cause thousands of senior controllers to retire and then jump ship to an industry group that she was supposed to be regulating.

In short, Marion Blakey was the epitome of the George W. Bush Administration -- which itself was the culmination of the policies of Ronald Reagan. NATCA should not let this take place without objecting. In my opinion, the louder they object the better.

The second event approaching is August 3, 2011 -- the 30 year anniversary of the PATCO strike. NATCA should use this event to highlight the suffering of America workers -- for 30 years -- after the crippling of Labor. We should state it plainly: Today’s economic conditions are a direct result of worker’s voices being drowned out in America’s rush to embrace the greed of unbridled capitalism. Our society idolized the Gordon Gekkos of this country while telling the workers that they weren’t smart enough, didn’t work hard enough or they just didn’t see “The Big Picture”.

America cannot succeed without its workers and its workers must have a seat at the bargaining table. We must control corporate greed and there is no better group to do that than organized labor. There must be a balance of power between Labor, Business and Government. Any two -- without the balance of the third -- becomes a conspiracy of power.

NATCA has the clout, intelligence and geographical reach to lead a resurgence of Labor. In other words, its members are well paid, smart and they cover the entire nation. You can do this. All it takes is willpower. You already have everything else you need. Why not start with IT workers? History awaits. Will you make it happen? Or just watch it happen?

(Note: For those that aren’t regular readers, I’m a retired member of NATCA and have been involved in the union since way before it was a union.)

Don Brown
June 22, 2011

1 comment:

Brad Koehn said...

One of the characteristics of workers who are a good fit for unionization is a relative interchangeability: when a controller position opens up, there's relatively little difference if controller A or controller B fills that position: the work they do and procedures they follow are standardized. Since the dawn of the assembly line the process of standardizing jobs has gone hand-in-hand with unionization: management begins to treat workers like interchangeable parts (and wages go down), and workers rather than railing against this dehumanizing process instead band together to demand better conditions.

In the twenty years that I've been in software engineering we've moved no closer to being interchangeable. There are studies dating back more than forty years that show that some software engineers are consistently ten times more productive than others. Technologies consistently evolve, making skills (and workers who don't evolve also) instantly obsolete.

Add to all of this the instant portability of some IT jobs to offshore facilities.

How should a union help workers in IT be compensated given these constraints? Should a worker with thirty years of COBOL experience be paid more than a worker with 3 years of iPhone programming experience? Because guess what? The iPhone worker will earn three to four times as much in today's market. Should the COBOL programmer's wage go up, or should the iPhone programmer's wage go down? Who's being treated unfairly? Should we all forgo iPhones so that COBOL programmers can carry their jobs all the way to retirement without retraining on newer, vastly improved technologies?

I'm not anti-union at all, but unions are currently better suited to jobs like pilots and controllers than they are to constantly-evolving jobs like IT, and specifically software development, where disparaties in productivity are so wide.