Windows & Linux Edition
Volume 1, Number 29 -- September 4, 2002

Are Programmers the Coal Miners of the 21st Century?

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Maybe it is because it was just Labor Day and yet another baseball strike was barely averted. Maybe it is because I am an employer on the outskirts of the IT industry watching a storm on the horizon. But I am beginning to think that the dozens of hot-shot, politically connected IT companies and the tens of millions of MIS organizations that are their customers are creating the conditions that will make it likely that programmers the world over are going to start unionizing.

Before I get into why I think this is the case, let me state for the record that I am not a member of the AFL-CIO and that I have no affiliations with any particular union. About my only experience with unions has to do with the jobs my parents had when I was a kid, and they were at a company that did not unionize.

Like democracies, unions are messy. Any time you pit the collective will of the people--or, more precisely, many different collective wills because people tend to group together on many different sides of any important issue--against the collective wealth and desire of the establishment, there's going to be friction, heat, and maybe even fire. Quite frankly, in an era of globalization where people from around the world can do most of the work we need to get done, an employer in America can hold the threat of being fired over the heads of all of its employees and wring a constant stream of concessions from those employees. Having said all of that, what I think about unions is not the point of this article, but rather what I think might happen among the key knowledge workers in the IT industry if employers and employees don't work out some pretty major issues that have geopolitical implications.

While we are often arguing about such issues on a national or global level, all good political and economic stories that illustrate a point are always local ones. Such is the case with this story. At the end of June, Patrick, my FedEx delivery guy, lugged my trade show booth into my office after we had shipped it back from a trade show. I've known him for years well enough to say hello and offer him a glass of water on a hot day, but for whatever reason that day we got to chatting about Guild Companies a little bit. As it turns out, Patrick took the job at FedEx to put himself through school to get a degree in computer science, and he has graduated and still he cannot find a job even though he has been taught, among other things, the ins and outs of programming in Oracle databases on Unix servers.

About that same time, a former employee of server maker Sun Microsystems got the attention of the Department of Justice, which is investigating the employees allegations that when giving the ax to 3,900 employees last fall--about 9 percent of its workforce--Sun had discriminated against workers in America in favor of foreign workers, who make up 5 percent of Sun's workforce and who come into the country on H-1B temporary visas.

A few weeks later, in a seemingly unrelated matter, nine miners were trapped in the flooded Quecreek mine outside of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and after a few tense days, they were all rescued alive. We don't think much about coal mining in the computer age, and while the job is not nearly as dangerous as it was a hundred years ago and conditions for the miners, who used to die in large numbers from black lung because of long exposure to coal dust, it is nonetheless an extremely hazardous job and one that has been made safer because of the efforts of the United Mine Workers Association for over a century. No question about it. What stuck me as particularly telling and funny was miner Harry Mayhugh's comment soon after being pulled from the mine: "They better be paying overtime." It was a threat as much as it was a joke.

It was against this backdrop that I began looking at the data from the Information Technology Association of America's recent report, called "Bouncing Back: Jobs, Skills, and Continuing Demand for IT Workers." Every time the ITAA announces its estimates on the size of the IT workforce and the number of unfilled IT positions in the United States, it causes controversy. One of the reasons why this is so is because the ITAA numbers have been the main lever used by the high-tech IT suppliers to convince Congress to boost the number of H1-B visas granted each year. The H1-B visas allow companies to import workers from outside the U.S. for up to six years, and the criticism is that these workers are paid less than indigenous IT workers (something that no one has proven to my satisfaction, but which seems logically consistent). In 1998, with the Y2K crisis looming and the dot-com boom still booming, Congress upped the H1-B visa cap from 65,000 workers to 195,000 workers. That cap is set to go back down to 65,000 workers in 2003, and many people expect the high tech companies, who are looking for skills and a cheap way to acquire them, to begin lobbying Congress to raise the H1-B quota again.

According to the ITAA report, the IT workforce shrunk by over half a million workers to 9.9 million workers between the beginning of 2001 and to the beginning of 2002 (the study is not based on a calendar year). The ITAA says that there will, despite the poor economy and despite the fact that over 500,000 workers were laid off last year, be 1.15 million new positions open in 2002 and that almost half of these will be unfilled. I don't believe this, plain and simple. With IT companies that make computing products and companies that use their products collectively firing half a million programmers, system analysts, and systems engineers (a small part of the mix) in 2001, which presumably means they are looking for jobs, there is no way that 600,000 positions can remain unfilled unless companies don't really want to fill those positions. To be sure, there are IT workers who left one job and do not have the skillsets to work at a new job yet. This is what ITAA is attributing this gap to.

While the ITAA denies that the organizations projections will be used to try to boost the H1-B visa caps, the organization is sponsored by all the big IT players and the ITAA's numbers are the best known--although not the only numbers--assessing the number of IT workers in America and carry weight with policy makers. This is precisely why the ITAA exists, after all. (You can see an alternative assessment of IT workers and open positions put together by the United Engineering Foundation at http://www.uefoundation.org/itworkfp.html. However, this information dates from 1999, which was a different era in the IT market.) Whether ITAA likes it or not, whether anyone admits it or not, these numbers have been used to justify raising the H1-B visa quotas. The higher quotas have made it harder for people to get IT jobs in the United States, particularly in the past two years as the IT market has been in a slump, causing vendors and users to cut back on their payrolls. Companies don't want to train employees who can be retrained, and they want to take the easy way out and import guest workers from other countries who presumably have the skills they are seeking or will work for enough less money (presumably) that this helps defer the cost of training them.

The problems facing IT workers are larger than H1-B visas, as we all know. This may just be the straw that breaks the camels back. Or, more precisely, the issue that causes programmers, system analysts, and other IT workers to organize in some meaningful and political way or, if conditions do not improve, to go as far as unionizing. Several years ago, the labor department in Sydney, Australia, organized the IT Workers Alliance to fight on behalf of IT workers, but this organization has not really spread beyond promoting the idea of unionizing IT workers and giving them information on their rights as full-time and contract employees. The Washington Alliance of Technical Workers was founded by a group of temp programmers at Microsoft just as the H1-B issue started to take hold and the practice of "permatemping" started to rankle programmers. Permatemps are employees that effectively have long-term jobs with software developers and yet, because of their so-called temporary status, are denied benefits such as health insurance, unemployment insurance, and stock options. WashTech is an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America union, and it seems to be dead serious about organizing IT workers. The Programmer's Guild, while not being a labor union and explicitly not interested in collective bargaining on behalf of programmers, is nonetheless interesting in creating a body to promote the profession of programming, setting professional standards and certifications, helping programmers find jobs, and lobbying policy makers on issues relating to programmers, such as the H1-B program, which it is vehemently opposed to.

If you are a programmer and you believe that you are being mistreated, you can get involved with these and a few other organizations. It's your profession, and it's your responsibility. If you are a manager of programmers, you might want to take a gander at these sites and give yourself an honest assessment about how your company treats its programmers. What management and labor do in the IT market will determine what happens next.

History is something of a guide here. Garment workers, auto workers, and steel workers who watched as American industry has shifted jobs overseas, often to third world countries where labor and environmental laws are lax, basically did very little as they lost their jobs and their industries abandoned them. But systems analysts and programmers are different. They may sit alone in their cubicles, but they are connected, and the very tools that they use to do their jobs--a PC or workstation and the Internet--can be used to organize other programmers and administrators in a company, across companies in an industry, across the country, and around the world. Perhaps most significantly, they are people who know the value of their work based on what other people with similar jobs are paid and what the companies they work for can command for that work as it ships in a finished product. Knowledge is power, and these people are the epitome, maybe even the archetype, of knowledge workers.

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Timothy Prickett Morgan

Managing Editor
Mari Barrett

Contributing Editors
Dan Burger
Joe Hertvik
Shannon O'Donnell
Victor Rozek
Hesh Wiener
Alex Woodie

Publisher and
Advertising Director

Jenny Thomas

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Last Updated: 9/04/02
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