Why 95 Percent of Software Engineers Lose Nothing By Unionizing

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.

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30 thoughts on “Why 95 Percent of Software Engineers Lose Nothing By Unionizing

  1. Most software “engineers” have drunk too much ‘capitalism’ koolaid and see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. People who are that willingly delusional won’t see a solution even if it sits on their face. If they want to destroy their own lives, let them!

    FYI- the reasons factory unions were once so common in USA (and still are in many developed countries) is that manual workers never saw themselves as potential millionaires. In contrast to that, most losers who code believe they are one step away from becoming fabulously rich.

    • The tech companies just invest a lot of money in avoiding unions. Since software engineers are more highly paid, companies can afford to spend quite a bit per worker on various union avoidance strategies. The Lanetix workers tried to organize a union, and management fired them and announced they were outsourcing.

      There are well-organized trade organizations for every nearly industry and all sorts of business groups to push their agenda. Whoever has the best organization gets the most power. Unions are a way to organize. Those who aren’t organized in some capacity are going to get trampled by those who are better organized.

  2. One thing underappreciated here is that there IS still something to lose: your job. If a group of 10 developers try to form a union, depending on the company, they can probably afford to fire the whole lot of them and hire 10 new coders.

    Unionization has always had this problem. It’s why unionization is hard. You need a fair chunk of the workforce of a company to simultaneously unionize, or else the managers will just laugh you ALL out of the building and hire new workers.

    Remember, in america, there is no law that prevents employers from firing people because they tried to unionize. You can be fired for any reason whatsoever as long as it isn’t in prejudice of disability, demographic, or whistleblowing of some form.

    • Remember, in America the NLRA prevents employers from firing (or otherwise retaliating against) people because they tried to unionize. However, it’s pretty easy to get around as long as the employer doesn’t tell you the reason for your dismissal was your pro-union activity.

      Also, not all states are 100% “at will” employment states.

      • That’s a fair point, but I still think it’s something that needs to be considered very carefully, and this article doesn’t consider that risk.

  3. I once scoffed at the idea of a tech unions but have gradually come around to believing their protections have become more and more necessary. I’ve personally experienced devastating layoffs and outsourcing at companies that previously were positive and productive “engineering-centered” cultures. Then, a buyout or merger or change of management turned them immediately into whip-cracking sweatshops overnight. It happens too frequently.

    Inevitably, someone will point out that we can vote with our feet because we are privileged and in-demand so we can all have new jobs with one call to a recruiter. That’s only true if you are unmarried, working in a “hot” field in a big city and/or are geographically flexible. Job change can take a psychic and medical toll even if it is a lateral move. Also, management doesn’t announce toxic culture change in advance, “BTW: We need you to work like dogs to integrate our two companies for the next five months. Thereafter we will treat the survivors like the galley slaves you are meant to be.” So, it can take months to know you need to jump.

    Alternatively, I imagine that a tech worker’s union could help prevent or pre-negotiate remedies to toxic employment practices before they happen. That wouldn’t just act to preserve “job security” but “job sanity” where it’s sorely needed.

    • Right on “job sanity”. Most of the anti-union sentiment in software engineering comes from people under 30 who haven’t yet realized that (a) they might develop disabilities, (b) they might have a sick wife, parent, or child someday, and (c) they’ll probably get sick of working till 9:00pm on someone else’s project once they realize that “someone else” has no reciprocal interest in their careers, education, or advancement.

      I’m 34. I’m already sick of the shit tech bosses get away with; they already have their own collective bargaining system. It’s called “management”. If they can work together (with attorneys and HR) to serve their own interests, why can’t workers do the same?

      • Yes, the “arrogance of youth” is a factor, for sure. I’ve got a few more years on me than you but I’m glad you already have a healthy level of cynicism. It is well founded for exactly the reasons you identify above. One of the first and best things that a tech union might do, BTW, is provide a union-managed health and retirement savings plan that would be portable between jobs. That would give tech workers _real_ mobility and the power to “fire” companies that go bad more easily.

        Two quick points:

        1) The places where tech unions might first take hold because they are most needed are A) Startups, B) Game companies, and C) Special FX Shops. Google the last two and you’ll find truly horrific stories where the dreams and enthusiasm of young tech workers make them vulnerable to systemic abuse.

        2) About management: I’ve also, at times, actually felt sorry for management (mostly middle management) in merger and acquisition situations because often after bloody, cage matches for redundant positions sometimes they’re the first to go. Granted, they often get lucrative severance packages and stock buy backs so I don’t feel _that_ sorry. Still, you can bet that the executive and finance class of management always end up sitting comfortably on their golden parachutes sipping champagne while everyone’s fighting for survival below them.

        • This is a great comment, and I agree. I’ve been in middle management and it can be just as bad as being a grunt. You’re even closer to the actual assholes– the executive parasites who do no work but suck out all the value at the top– and you often have to work harder. Middle management is hard to do well, and moral conflict can be severe– I kept my moral resolve, but I understand the temptation to become just another managing-up sleazeball.

      • I don’t think it’s just the youth thing…software engineers, especially in the Valley, are famous for not being the most social types. Add in the fact that a lot of them grew up in comfortable, middle-class circumstances, the majority of them are straight white males, and it’s not too hard to see why unionization doesn’t happen. Though the recent actions at Google against Project Maven give me some hope.

  4. “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.”

    If this were true, then why do almost no software shops have unions? Surely it would provide a huge competitive advantage, at least when it comes to hiring and maintaining headcount. I’ve never worked anywhere you describe (e.g., $500K superstars), so we’ve had no 1%ers who would have ever lost out.

    I suspect the answer is that the presence of unions increases the individual worker environment while making the workplace overall less productive, so it’s not really a competitive advantage. It’s good if you want to get paid on time and not be subject to stack ranking. It’s bad if you want a chance to produce some software which will get used by people and change the world.

    • “It’s good if you want to get paid on time and not be subject to stack ranking.”

      Well, there we have it. I agree. And I think this is important. See, if you subject workers to stack ranking, you’re bound to have low-quality results because the incentive is for political behavior, not high quality of work.

      “It’s bad if you want a chance to produce some software which will get used by people and change the world.”

      Who cares about that? Most private-sector technology changes the world for the worse.

    • I disagree and think you are working on two false premises:

      1) “… so [having a union is] not really a competitive advantage.”
      Why not? In a possible marketplace where you have a choice of companies A, B, and C and company C offers humane management supported by a union, that’s a competitive advantage for company C to attract and retain top-notch talent.

      2) “It’s [also] bad if you want a chance to produce some software which will get used by people and change the world.”
      Why? Your assumption (not uncommon) is that startups that “change the world” are Silicon Valley TV show parodies that require 80-hour work weeks with no benefits, no bathing and sleeping under your desk. That’s B.S. Startups take, on average, 2 to 3 years to gain traction and another two years of accelerated growth. Expecting people to set aside their lives and health for that long is not sustainable. Also, studies show that the creativity of groups is tied to its diversity of viewpoints. That means supporting married, unmarried, older, younger, male, female, childless and parents. You can’t do that with macho “we’re going to change the world by Red Bulling our way to success” attitude.

  5. You gave many excellent pro-union arguments here and I’d love to be able to share this article among my coworkers. But I know for sure that I’m going to lose them right after they get to the part about molesting the boss’s daughter or son or the part about fighting with thugs.

    Like I know why you’ve compared corporate practices to being in a street fight, but when an indoctrinated person is going to read your post, those parts where you described unfazed murderous thugs with knives and guns will allow them to easily dismiss the good pro-union arguments that you have.

    I think it’d be possible to still convey the same strong points without resorting to this kind of imagery. It’s obviously your choice, but I suggest reconsidering the way you want to convince indoctrinated people in the future with your writing.

    Cheers and I hope we’ll manage to make unions as strong as they used to be.

    • Good point. I’m keeping the street fight analogy because it works, but the dysphemistic example that I thought was humorous– “the only thing that could prevent you from making senior management within 5 years would be to molest the boss’s daughter, son, or horse…”– probably doesn’t suit all audiences. I was looking for an extreme example… instead of saying “X will never happen”, I was saying “the only way X could happen is if you did something unspeakably terrible”.

  6. My question is, how would we reach a critical mass, where management and investors would need to take our interests seriously? A union forms at one company, they get fired and their careers destroyed. A union forms at another, the same thing happens. But it will take a long, long time before there is a big enough mass of ruined careers for people to notice any drop in productivity, if they happen to notice at all. And those people can be replaced with H1B’s. Sure, websites and apps may be buggier, but who cares?

    Unions worked because there was a clear, linear relationship between the number of hours worked and profit. Workers went on strike at a factory, that factory’s profits dipped, and everyone could see it. You could build a linear regression around it. Unionization is basically taking control of the x variable.

    In software, this linearity disappears – you may hire 50 kids from Stanford and produce nothing profitable, or you may be 3 guys from a community college and you build the next unicorn blockbuster gay hookup app. Nobody really knows how the equation translating work into profit works. If workers say they’re going to take control of a variable in this equation, it has less force, because nobody knows the equation. It is this ambiguity, that gives investors and upper management all the leverage.

    Ironically, it is the Damaso-like (Damascene?) traits of our investor/manager class that gives them their advantage. They are thugs in all but the physical violence, and even there they make exceptions. They lack intellectual curiosity, they are conformist, and they jealously guard their power. But what are the implications of this? If you point a gun at someone who has never seen a gun before, the gun loses all its power to manipulate that person. If you tell an investor or an upper manager that you’re creating next-generation AI, and they don’t care that much about what current AI is, you have no leverage over them. You’re not likely to find that one investor who will give you the time of day – so you either do the things that they say or get the fuck out.

    Forming unions, to me, is trying to get investors to abide by a set of outdated rules that have lost their coercive power.

    But getting the fuck out isn’t impossible. Because what’s out there? A world of people, many of whom haven’t been brainwashed by Silicon Valley, New York, or Washington. All they want is for their lives to be a little easier. Example: I live in an undisclosed location outside of the US. A friend of mine began traveling to the US bringing back crates of vitamins that you can’t buy here. He then set up a dinky website to sell them. Given that people here are obsessed with fitness, in 3 months he had grossed 100k. (Seriously, if you’re a careful reader you’ll figure out where I live pretty quickly) No investors, no managers, just a smart guy with rudimentary web skills and a connect to the good stuff. There’s a new economy out there being born that doesn’t depend on the old centers of capital and power. That’s where we can thrive.

  7. Good post – it provokes some thought. I’ve worked as a “top performer” in tech and a union would be very advantageous to me based on how many times I’ve been lied to about what my job would be when I went to a new position. Managers are very interested in keeping me around because I can deal with anything they throw at me. Unfortunately because I’m a woman in tech this means they ask me to take notes and run meetings in addition to being devops, designer, and developer. If they have a tool they will use (and abuse) it. I’m now in a position where I stand to lose a significant amount of money as a result of quitting because my job description was a lie. HR is on my side but they can’t tell my manager what to do. I’m in favor of some unionization even though I’m a “highly valued” developer in a big four company.

    • I think that, while many people in the 9.9 percent are moral failures– just as many people in any group are– it is very dangerous to allow division between the “blue state” 9.9% “cultural elite” and the “red state” 90% to be sown by it.

      Ultimately, the very-rich have managed to use a somewhat made-up leftist “cultural elite” as a ruse to prevent the poor from seeing how bad our shared enemy– the increasingly fascistic economic elite– is fucking them up the ass.

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