Oxymoron-ville

High-tech unions. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? The very notion of unionizing IT professionals seems wildly out of whack for an industry in love with the New Economy and overrun with legions of ambitious, bright, highly paid, skilled job-hoppers.

But events like the ongoing Verizon strike and last year's widely covered flap about the rights of Microsoft's temporary workers conspire to keep unionization efforts bubbling on a political back burner.

On our front page last week, we ran a story about the impact of the strike ["Unions Take Aim at High-Tech Workers"], which set off a lively and ongoing debate in one of our forums at Computerworld.com. The thought of unionizing IT professionals has most forum participants sputtering with indignation. "Don't tell me that unions are going to survive and move into my industry!" wrote one independent programmer. "Where do union leaders get off thinking they're needed?" another asked.

Good question. Like many baby boomers (and many of our readers), I have an automatic aversion to unions. For me, the u word conjures up a faintly menacing, overly controlling, paternalistic relic. When unions strike, the media portray overwrought people waving signs and shaking fists. It's hard to imagine a group of Web developers or network administrators in matching T-shirts, holding placards. All they need is a fresh resume and two weeks' notice.

But a lone voice in our forum piped up with a reasonable counterargument, noting that not all IT pros enjoy long-term employment at companies offering health insurance, 401(k)s and protection against unfair termination. To say there's no place for unions in the New Economy is, I suspect, a knee-jerk oversimplification. A few weeks ago, the National Writers Union struck a deal with a new Web site (Contentville.com) that was violating copyright protections. Would some irate freelance writers have gotten an effective settlement so quickly? I doubt it.

Granted, the 1950s-style business model of traditional unions is irrelevant, even absurd, to high-tech white-collar workers. But what if unions refashioned themselves as skilled craft guilds offering a new safety net to temp workers and freelancers, as the Silicon Valley branch of the AFL-CIO is trying to do? What if the have-nots of the New Economy could get portable health benefits at reasonable rates, or take classes to gain new skills in exchange for those union dues?

That might be just the ticket out of Oxymoron-ville for high-tech unions.

Maryfran Johnson is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact her at maryfran_johnson@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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