business technology

Is A Tech Union in the Works Finally?

I just saw an article posted on the LA Times regarding the potential unionizing of the game and tech industries. In particular, Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (or CODE) “is a new project of the Communications Workers of America aimed specifically at unionizing video game and tech companies.” This has a lot of implications for tech workers (such as myself) and I would like to weigh both ends of the spectrum here.

Much of the action centers around issues from the game industry’s problems with prolonged hours especially during crunch weeks, tech’s ethical dilemmas and overall better working conditions for employees. Electronic Arts, years ago, had an infamous case that set a major precedent after the wife of an employee blogged about the harsh hours EA imposed on her husband. In turn, that scrutiny led to a law in California that prevents companies from not issuing fair compensation towards those not in managerial positions (e.g network engineers, system engineers, etc.)

Despite such a rule, it’s still not unheard of for tech and gaming companies to push employees to unreasonable levels of taxation on top of finding methods to get around such issues. For instance, I’ve worked or applied for companies that had a checkbox which would permit the company to have you work beyond 40 hours. In one case (Rubicon Project), I refused to mark the box and did not get hired (whereas I felt I did fairly well in the interview process). I’m certain that the checkbox was enforced to allow legal the ability to prevent employee complaints.

However, the problem about many of these companies, especially those that have sizeable coffers, is that there is little that the individual can do against them once an employee decides to make a claim against them. Sometimes, I’ve witnessed companies make threats against individuals (usually a sociopath executive) where the employee in question would be jeopardized in future employment possibilities. In almost all these conditions, the employee had little ability to defend themselves just because of the power of a company versus the individual.

Now, I can go on further about the issues for showing the problems within the industry. But really we need to discuss what solutions a union potentially could bring to tech and gaming.

The main thing is empowering employees to walk out and effectively shutting down a company. This act should never be one that is done spuriously but one that is decided because of unfair treatment or because employees witness the unethical decision making of upper management.  Long hours, low pay, high stress, unhealthy environments are good candidates for this situation. Unethical decision making or handling of situations like sexual harassment, age/race discrimination, etc. also would fall under this scenario.

I feel that midsized or larger companies should be the ones that be placed under this umbrella. The main reasons are simply size and responsibility. I think small companies occupy a different set of conditions that I want to talk about after. However, I associate midsized and larger spots as those that desire more stability not just from a business point of view but from the way an employee should hope to view themselves within that organization.

How should compensation and basic necessities be handled then? This is a real tough one. I feel that the advantage of a free market is how the market corrects itself in the long run. In tech, it’s a real difficult area because of the constant flux. One year you might be at the top of your game making $140k for one language and the next year a new trend with a different language/framework comes about that turns your situation obsolete.

I feel with tech most companies where these ideas need to apply aren’t truly tech companies. If you look at things, there aren’t a lot of true tech companies. Most are some form of media/content, ads, ecommerce, defense, gaming that utilize tech but are not truly tech centric. At the same time, due to the nature of their business problems, each of these areas might end up pushing certain boundaries of an aspect of tech that influence the overall sphere of tech. So it’s a very bizarre state.

I think one of the worries about unionizing tech is the possibility of hampering innovation, which in turn hampers the overall economy of tech. In my head, I see a possible dystopian future of a unionized tech where unions create a stagnation in tech by creating laws that enforce certain tech to be used out of a poorly designed democratic framework rather than an evolving one. Like imagine if tech had been unionized say 20-30 years ago. We probably would not have the web and might still be on mainframes or using COBOL.

I think there’s another latent fear in unionizing tech where the innovators of tech no longer will receive recognition nor (most importantly) the compensation for what they do. Or if that’s the case, it’ll be a very select group. This one I’m not really seeing as a practical concern because I think it’s a poison that has made tech into a toxic environment for the past 20 years. Preventing greed should not be a motivator in dissuading what a unionized tech industry should look like.

Really, what a tech union should be about is a way to create more job security, flexibility and safety for employees. The biggest problem with tech since the dot com era has been a lack in the three aforementioned areas, especially on the job security end.

I emphasize job security the most because of how that directly impacts the economy. Tech has the stain of the late 90’s, early 2000’s dot com bubble where early day unicorns burst. These days tech has grown to the point where we have become completely dependent upon it and that certain companies practically rule the earth due to the amount of power they’ve accumulated.

What hasn’t changed is the transient nature of the tech job and the possibility that a person is working for a unicorn. Even though people have become smarter about growing a tech or tech-like company, there’s a lot of fraud, misplaced bets and bad ideas going around that amount to continual instability in the market.

While the people on top won’t be affected that adversely, the individuals at the bottom are. In turn, that has setup the most ridiculous economic trends such as housing prices and the insane cost of living in places like California. Part of that is simply because a Google or Facebook can afford to give more money to individuals than most companies.

Although the people working at Google or Facebook may not care whether their situation impacts others economically, just the average person such as a teacher may be forced out of their neighborhood once these companies decide to stroll into their neighborhoods.

Now, here’s where I’m going to be a bit outrageous in where I’m going with this but the thing is that compensation needs to handled better, perhaps at a more equitable level. I know there will be these kids over at Google or Facebook bitching that it’s unfair for the masters degree they obtained over at MIT, etc. But you just have to look at the supposed internal malpractice Google, FB and Apple had between each other in NOT allowing each other to hire from one another. Right there, you’re effectively agreeing that these companies practices are good for the economy.

I mean, it drives me nuts that my 20 years still places me lower on the payscale than some guy with 5 years because of a specific language. How is that fair practice? And a lot of times my 20  years beat out 100 of these 5 years little punks.

I know a lot of people will decry this as being “socialism.” It’s not. But what you’re telling me is that you’d prefer being possibly unemployed in a few years and having your 200k year salary being overtaxed by Uncle Sam now rather than having steady employment for the next 10 years with a reasonably high compensation?

But let me throw a few more juicy ideas out there. I mentioned flexibility. What I mean by flexibility is remote potential and being able to float between projects. The thing I’ve found at working at most tech companies is that there’s no real reason to work on site. In fact, it’s detrimental and silly at best. You have to laugh in the face at management who still expect their tech employees to show up at a static desk with their hands rapidly typing without understanding what the expected output is. Imagine if unions in tech allowed more remote work (not outsourcing); that means you would have more choices in the places you could live, which would hopefully bring down the cost of living in places like California and spread it across the country and world a lot more.

Secondly, for projects, let’s be honest: there is no more long term employment. After the 2007 financial meltdown, humans proved that an industry impervious to the effects of a global economic catastrophe. And because of the non-existent pension, there is no reason for life time employment outside of mental stability.

But as tech workers, why should one be stuck on a stupid, single system for the rest of their life? I know some people who would fine that a dream job. But I feel that you end up stagnating being caught up in that type of a situation. As an engineer or someone involved in tech, you ought to have some desire to progress your knowledge and skills. Honestly, for myself I’d prefer floating between projects and trying new things and meeting new people than dealing with the same old all the time.

Now, I also mentioned safety which might seem peculiar. I had a friend in the film industry mention why his industry is unionized and tech is not: there are actual safety reasons because of the physical nature of film. I suppose that could just be Hollywood’s prejudice against nerd culture because I know that tech has a variety of safety issues inherent.

First, the rise of RSI, vision and lumbar problems from prolonged hours in a chair. While not every engineer might be someone dishing out lines of code every minute, many engineers are saddled in terrible seats with bad displays, non-ergonomic furniture that can take a toll over the years of bad habits. I’m not saying all companies have this issue but there’s quite a few companies that are super cheap and just unwilling to accommodate engineers or people at their desks for these long periods.

Vision is a huge one, especially for myself since my eyes have degraded over the years. If you combine that with long hours and driving home in the dark, you’re bound to have an accident at some point. Yet there’s nothing that really enforces healthier environments across the board. Like mandatory stretch breaks. Engineers are not necessarily the best at keeping good habits.

There’s also mental health conditions. This is something horribly lacking in tech. Tech has traditionally been very top down driven. All you have to do is watch Office Space and see how a fictional character like Peter has eight different bosses giving him passive-aggressive micromanagement threats daily to understand how aggravating it is to be a worker in tech.

Here’s the funny part: tech workers just want to get their basic work done. A lot of the good workers want to put good effort into what they do. But guess what? Management often prevents them because they’re hyper insecure, leading to micromanagement, skewed dates, long hours, more passive aggressive meetings that are just status checks for upper management. None of it is productive and none of it ever produces anything positive for those outside of upper management (and even then I’d argue that it was a useless waste of time).

The thing is that tech (programming in particular) is like art. You don’t tell an artist how to paint a drawing. You can commission the artist to do a drawing and give them a general description of what you want. But the moment you start instructing that artist what colors to use, what thickness of a brush, the amount of paint to use, where to place the brush, you’ve effectively ruined the artist’s vision. There is nothing more demoralizing than being told by people who know far less than you how to do your job especially when their advice offers nothing useful.

But that’s it. People in tech are bad at protecting themselves. It’s basically like high school again where you were the AD&D nerd boy with decent grades being picked on by the most popular football jock. If you had one reason to have a union, it’s to prevent this scenario from existing. People who are against unions because they think it’s socialistic are fucking idiots and probably delusional assholes themselves. At the very least, we need a mechanism that can protect workers in this industry.

Now, I did mention smaller companies being separate. I think that to protect innovation small companies (say under 50) should be exempt from these rules or at least from allowing a union to form. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me when a new idea is trying to take off and 7 people of 10 suddenly decide to go on strike because they worked an extra hour. So you need some balance between this and allowing innovation to remain.



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