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Life in the code monkey house


Why Don't IT Workers Unionize?


by Tristan Trout



My friend Sara (whose name I've change to protect her slim chances of getting a new job) worked in the IT department of a large American corporation, keeping their Web site updated. Every so often, a new "project" would come down the pipe from the ignoramuses in Management, sparkling with the latest buzzword that some overpaid consultant had taught them. "Give us more interactivity," they would say. "Make browsing our site an above-the-fold experience. Give it hyperlinks."

After figuring out what the geniuses with the expensive degrees wanted, to get these projects done, Sara would often have to work until 8 or 9 o'clock at night, eating dinner out of Chinese take-out containers and neglecting her cat, her boyfriend, and her yoga class. More than half the time, the project was cancelled anyway, leaving Sara with nothing to show for her efforts but an ever-increasing roll of fat around her gut, cat piss on her bed, burnt-out batteries in her Hitachi Magic Wand, and some stale egg foo young in the fridge. It wasn't like they were paying her anything, either—she was kept on a contract that came up for renewal every six months, with no overtime, no retirement plan, no chance for promotion, and just enough money to pay the rent on her half of a tiny New York City apartment. Finally, late last fall, the company decided that it would be cheaper to "outsource," and laid off her entire department. She's now without health insurance and owes her dentist $500 she doesn't have for an emergency wisdom-tooth extraction.

Gone are the glory days of venture capital-funded bagels and massages at your desk. When the dot-com bubble burst like a fart in a bathtub, the code monkey became today's assembly line worker. The parallels are obvious: Both never wear shirts with collars if they can help it. Both are ultimately responsible for producing the finished product, and both possess a unique skillset that is necessary for getting the job done. Just as you can't make cars without guys with welding torches, you can't make video games or Web sites or financial software without someone who knows the difference between a C++ compiler and Minesweeper.

Most importantly, both blue-collar workers and no-collar workers are the first to get the shaft. No programmer, however 31337, is going to be promoted even to middle management, with all the benefits—such as getting paid a decent wage—that this entails. Gone are the days when a CS degree meant $60,000 a year right out of college. Most of the time, keyboard jockeys are lucky to keep their jobs, since, in today's rather crappy economy, they're often the first ones laid off, and the only people who get severance packages any more are the execs they catch embezzling. The math is simple: If your workers aren't paid extra for overtime, it's cheaper to pay one person to do the job of three, and if you can keep them as "consultants" and avoid even the health benefits, so much the better. After all, the more you short your workers, the bigger your golden parachute. Apparently, Management doesn't understand that there are only so many hours in a day in which one person can fix the server, update the database, and once again remind Bernice The Aged Administrative Assistant who has been working for the firm since the Eisenhower administration how to print out her boss' e-mail.

So, what we have is a rather large group of people whose skills are absolutely indispensable to keeping the economy going, but who are getting continually exploited and pushed around by the same smarmy kids who used to flush their heads in the toilet after high school gym class, albeit now wearing Armani instead of letter jackets. And, thus far, no one's done anything about it except gripe on FuckedCompany and cry into their beer.

A while ago, we asked the question, "Why don't office workers unionize?" The answer, of course, is that by going to college for four (or five, or six) years and working with your brains, instead of your hands, you're supposedly of a "better" class. Unions struggle under the unmerited working-class, blue-collar stigma of being associated with unsavory types like Teamsters and auto plant workers—even if teachers and police officers also have their unions.

In many ways, programmers and their ilk are victims of their own overeducation. They tend to be Ayn Rand-reading, Heinlein-worshipping, independent, antisocial, and libertarian in their political views. Put three programmers in the same room, and you'll get four opinions on everything from bombing Iraq to statutory rape. Trying to get them to do anything together—as anyone who's seen the vicious politics around a Star Trek convention or goth club can attest—is like herding cats.

Yet, prospectively, computer geeks, being well-connected both in the literal and figurative senses of the word, could organize more quickly and more strongly than the United Auto Workers or Garment Workers ever did. There would be a whole lot of benefits, beginning with health care and employment security. In a field where a university degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on and some of the most skilled workers are self-taught, the community itself could ensure that workers had the necessary skills to do a job—sort of like a guild system for the twenty-first century.

The only hope of improvement in the situation is when IT workers realize that their mutual exploitation gives them common cause, and that any group of people is stronger together than they are independently. Imagine if, one day, if the Local #404 asked every help-desk phone-answerer and javascript debugger in New York or San Francisco or Chicago to call in sick. The city would shut down.

And maybe people like Sara would finally start getting paid what they're worth.



Revenge of the Nerds? E-mail

Posted January 19, 2003 4:11 PM






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