New union drives?

So I was reading this article, which got me thinking again about unionization. Several years ago, a friend and I started the bare bones work to unionize a student-run computer help centre. It wasn’t that the work was so bad, because it wasn’t. The pay was decent, as student jobs go, and it was a fairly good work environment. So why on earth would we want to unionize? Because the reason the job was so good was because of our supervisor. She was an amazing woman who always seemed to put the interests of the helpdesk staff first. She was our friend. She’d come down and hang out, talk about whatever, make work fun, yet at the same time, she made sure work got done.

Then, she got a sort-of promotion. Essentially, she was handed more responsibility apart from running the helpdesk that took her away from us. Nothing changed immediately, but there were subtle changes afoot. New responsibilities were added to the staff. We were asked to support more, different technologies, without being given (proper) training on what to do. Many of us suddenly changed roles at our jobs, with no recognition in titular or financial form. The student staff was split into 2 groups, the ‘first level’ group, who would respond to most calls, and the ‘second level’ group, whose job it was to supervise the first level group, as well as respond to more difficult questions.

I was put into the second level group. While admittedly, I was compensated by earning an extra $1.50 an hour, suddenly I was expected to lead my peers; reprimand them if necessary. In a sense, it split the helpdesk, and the atmosphere was no longer the same. I ceased enjoying the atmosphere at work, as the tension grew : if someone talked to me, would they be reprimanded for not doing their jobs? etc. My job there transitioned further – I essentially became a network administrator there, redeploying their network and making sure that it was maintained properly. There was no other change in my job description or compensation package, even though I was now doing exactly the same job as full time network administrators. My job satisfaction contined to free-fall, and I quit as soon as I could.

So why do I say all this?

In recent years, there have been several inroads made into unionizing the service industry. Very proudly, I’ll point you all to my older brother’s book, ‘Youth At Work’, which describes some of the incidents related to this drive, both good and bad. There have been several McDonalds that have unionized, only to then close, or de-certify just as quickly. Why? I don’t know. I have some ideas, but none that are proven, as I myself have no retail/restaurant experience.

Historically, unions start to protect their workers from exploitation. Unions are why we have a 5-day, 40-hour work week. We should all be thankful. Unions are also driving forces behind standardised health plans for employees, sick, vacation & child leave, etc. All sorts of things that we take for granted.

In the computer industry, it is obvious to see why unions could be useful. Anyone who has ever worked in the industry can tell you that ‘odd working hours’ are the norm. You are expected to work overtime, and enjoy it, damn it! Companies attempt to compensate by providing niceties, like free beverages, pool tables, scree-ball games, etc. These are all devices that tie you to your job and your desk. If you come into work in your free time to play, you are much more likely to sit down and start working. Dotcoms, before the crash, would complain that unions would kill them, that unions were too slow in the fast-paced economy that they lived in. Well, they managed to kill themselves.

I’m not, however, advocating that unions as they exist should enter into the new, 21st-century workplace. I rile against the standard seniority pay/promotion scale that many (if not most) unions work under. I believe that it is perfectly ok for the woman who’s been there 6 months to get the job ahead of the guy who’s been there 6 years if she’s more qualified, has more drive, etc. Particularly in the retail sector where the turnover rate is so high, having a seniority-based promotion system seems a little odd to me. Most workers will never reach their first pay-raise point. Part-time workers are often not even eligible for a lot of the built-in raise systems.

In the wake of the dotcom crash, many programmers, who were previously thought impervious to unemployment, find themselves exactly that. Surfing the net, it is amazing to see how many consulting companies are one man shops started in the ashes of their former jobs. I myself have one such company. But can one unionize thousands of individuals working at thousands of different companies? Yes. Look at the actors, directors or screen-writers guilds in Hollywood. These associations were created entirely to protect individuals, and make sure that certain standards were created. What if every programmer had to belong to a programmer’s guild? Would this be a good thing? I think so. It would be able to establish certain levels of competence, which would be guidelines for billing rates. These workers could share in a large-scale health care & retirement plan, etc. Clients looking for contractors would be able to know what ‘scale’ of programmer they needed. The top programmers (perhaps established by the widely used certification exams) would have higher rates, and clients would know roughly what these were, and could budget for it. I can think of at least a dozen times that potential clients have balked at the rates companies I have worked at charge, only to return, sheepishly, when they realise that charging X per hour to develop their custom application is not at all unreasonable.

I could probably go on and on about the various streams in this thought, but for now, will stop here.

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