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Are you a member of a trade union? Why? Why not? If you are, and don't mind mentioning it, which one?

Do you know of any programmers who were helped by being in a union, or would have been helped by being in a union? Do you know of any programmers who were hindered or would have been hindered by being in a union?

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closed as not constructive by Thomas Owens May 1 '13 at 1:34

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This is a controversial political topic. We are to avoid asking questions that are subjective, argumentative, or require extended discussion. This is not a discussion board, this is a place for questions that can be answered! blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/09/good-subjective-bad-subjective –  davidhaskins Mar 10 '11 at 14:57
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@davidhaskins - Maybe controversial a bit, but very rational question otherwise. I don't see any part of it which cannot be answered; he is asking the opinions of users here, and if they are members of an union, what has been their experience with it. I see nothing wrong with that. That attitude is more suitable for SO. –  Rook Mar 10 '11 at 15:03
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Actually, I think that @Scott is asking questions that are definitely answerable: "are you a member of a trade union? which one?" Also, if we are able to keep our political leanings out of the matter, the follow-up questions about being helped or hindered can also be answered with a fair degree of objectivity. –  Adam Crossland Mar 10 '11 at 15:06
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@davidhaskins - It is also a poll question. –  JohnFx Mar 10 '11 at 15:25
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Possible duplicate of programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/46791/…;. –  Anna Lear Mar 10 '11 at 19:19
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9 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I'm not a member of any union because I don't see the need for it in my particular situation. I have good working conditions and I'm making more than I'm spending by a comfortable margin, and that's good enough for me. Paying dues to a union for representation that I have no need of would not be a rational decision.

If conditions were different, though, I would be amenable to joining one, because I'm aware of the good that they do in situations where they are necessary.

However, I believe that such membership needs to be voluntary. If you believe that the benefits of union membership make the cost worthwhile, then you join, otherwise you don't, and you don't get the same benefits that the union members get. The concept of a "union shop," where all workers are required to join the union and pay dues as a condition of employment, is simply a protection racket by a different name, and needs to be recognized as such and made illegal.

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No. First of all, like JohnFX, I'm not aware of unions for programmers in the US (they may exist, but I've not heard of them, and I have no colleagues or friends who are or were ever in one). And on a more personal note, I work for a small business (a literary magazine, actually), and I'm treated well and have no use for one.

On a more general note, I don't think they're particularly necessary for programmers. Unions exist primarily to protect the rights of workers when the employee-employer relationship is tipped unfairly in the direction of the employer. This may occur if work is inherently unsafe; when jobs are not mobile and/or the employer has a monopoly on work in an area (e.g., police, firefighters, and teachers); or when there is not a clear-cut way to distinguish between good and bad workers (think someone on an assembly line). None of those apply to developers: developers needn't lobby for safer working conditions, development jobs are fairly fluid (maybe not as much in this economy as in recent years, though), and there's a clear difference between a good programmer and a bad one. I think unions have failed to spring up because they aren't really necessary in our line of work.

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Sensible, moderate position that reflects my own personal experiences. –  Adam Crossland Mar 10 '11 at 15:41
    
I once was in a county government where there was a move to unionize that would include the programmers. It failed. That's the closest I've been. –  David Thornley Mar 10 '11 at 16:04
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The difference between a good programmer and bad one is not as clear as it may seem on the surface. What defines good and bad is based on the hiring manager's experience. If he/she has only worked in shops with mediocre to poor talent (most corporate IT gigs fit this description), then he/she is not a good judge of software practitioner quality. I spent the bulk of my career working hardcore engineering-oriented shops before joining my current organization. I cannot believe what passes for "highly skilled" in our IT department. –  bit-twiddler Mar 10 '11 at 16:15
    
While most programmers can tell who are good or bad, the people that really matter, the managers, have a far more challenging time in that endeavor. Also, I worked an assembly line one summer and believe me, the good and bad workers are far more obvious than the good or bad programmers. The problem is, that the good and bad assembly workers get treated exactly the same. There's nothing the good workers can do about it. At least as programmers we can benefit from being better at our jobs than others. –  Dunk Mar 15 '11 at 20:03
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No. Primarily because I'm not aware of any union that applies to my job and secondarily because I'm not a big fan of unions in general.

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If it's anything like college group work, one guy does all the work while a lot of others coast by doing very little. I worked hard in college so I could get away from that scenario. –  davidhaskins Mar 10 '11 at 14:57
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Also, I feel like the point of unions is to give labor bargaining power in jobs where employees are largely undifferentiated and thus don't have a lot of bargaining power. The fact that programmers make really good money, especially for the amount of education required, without the benefit of a union implies to me that we don't need one. –  JohnFx Mar 10 '11 at 15:25
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Worker conditions are not the same in every country, even for programmers. Is there a case to be made for developer unions areas that are typically outsource providers?. –  TGnat Mar 10 '11 at 16:27
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actually, the compensation curve for software practitioners who do not move into management is bell shaped. After age forty, the average software practitioner's earning power declines at a fairly steady clip until he/she reaches age fifty. At fifty, it is darn near impossible for a non-managerial software practitioner to find permanent employment, regardless of his/her skill set. About the only organizations that hire older non-managerial software practitioners are governments, government contractors, and universities, all of which tend to offer less competitive compensation packages. –  bit-twiddler Mar 10 '11 at 20:11
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@bit-twiddler: The compensation curve for professional athletes has the a more pronounced version of that curve and you don't see them forming unions. Hey, wait....hrmmmm. –  JohnFx Mar 11 '11 at 15:51
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Unions force two things:

  • Members to use the unions for negoitation
  • Higher cost of having employees.

Both things are bad for me as a developer. Programming, like other 'white collar' professions, is as much about the person as it is about the discipline. You can send two people to identical schools, learning identical things, and performing the same task, but you will have two different outcomes. Unions treat every 'worker' as interchangeable; and bargain as if they are all interchangable.

They are not. Without a union, I have the opportunity to negotiate my own wage and my own benefits. If I want to work for lower pay but get more vacation, I have that option.

Secondly, Unions traditionally want what anyone else in power wants: More. They want more money for their workers, more vacation, more benefits. This is a problem when they ask for too much and send the business into a tailspin (see: US Auto Industry; the current union debates in Wisconsin).

Unions are not good for business, and without business we would not have jobs.

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You're certainly entitled to your opinion, but I think that this is a poor answer to the questions that were asked. –  Adam Crossland Mar 10 '11 at 15:16
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@Adam Crossland I disagree. This is exactly the sort of explanation of the reasoning behind a decision I was hoping to see. –  Scott Mar 10 '11 at 15:32
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@Scott, I'm sorry to hear it. I actually don't see very much reasoning in this answer as much as assertions and broad generalizations. @George makes a valid point about being able to negotiate his own salary, but the rest of the answer seems to me to be a highly-subjective and one-sided view of unions. –  Adam Crossland Mar 10 '11 at 15:40
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@Adam He didn't ask me to defend unions, he asked me why I wasn't a member of a union. If it weren't 'one-sided', then I'd be a confused individual -- believing contradictory ideas! –  George Stocker Mar 10 '11 at 15:54
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Programming is a skill, not a profession. Programming was treated as a skill when I first entered the field back in the seventies. Someone got the bright idea that companies could get away without paying overtime if they classified programmers as "exempt" professionals. Up until the 1980s, the "exempt" classification was mostly limited to management positions. –  bit-twiddler Mar 10 '11 at 18:01
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If you're programming in a 19th century soot-filled factory for sixteen hours a day, then yes, you should probably unionise.

Otherwise, talk to your manager directly about workplace problems. You'll be surprised how much more reasonable management can be in the 21st century. You probably won't ever actually need the blunt and disruptive negotiation tools that unions impose.

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The modern-day cube is the 21st century equivalent of the soot-filled factory. Most organizations pay only lip service to workstation ergonomics. Believe it or not, working in front of computer in a poorly-designed workstation leads to carpal tunnel syndrome and back and foot problems over time. In my case, thirty years of banging on a keyboard in non-ergonomically designed work environments led to carpal tunnel releases on both hands and a nerve release in my right foot. The specialists who performed these surgeries said that software development is one of their largest sources of patients. –  bit-twiddler Mar 10 '11 at 16:27
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Firstly, it's hard to equate carpel-tunnel with the chronic lung diseases that took 30 to 40 years off factory workers' lifespans. Secondly, have you taken up your concerns about your cubicle with your manager? If you ask, you actually get a proper chair and keyboard. I doubt you'll need to go on strike to get an ergonomically well-adjusted cubicle. –  smithco Mar 10 '11 at 16:43
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I beg to differ. Carpal tunnel syndrome is serious problem when one earns one's living using one's hands. It seems like such a minor problem until one cannot feel the keys on a keyboard or drive oneself to work. Left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome can render a person unemployable because just about every job requires one to be able use one's hands. The only reason why employers even play lip service to the problem is because it is listed as an occupational hazard with OSHA. Most employers treat their software development staff like chattel. –  bit-twiddler Mar 10 '11 at 17:23
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I'm not claiming carpal tunnel is not serious, but it isn't something so severe and endemic that it would require the disruptive intervention of a union to deal with. The simple action of asking nicely for a new keyboard and chair often works quite well. Employers do care about these things: it's not about paying lip service to OSHA. You seem to have a very dim view of the software industry. Maybe you've worked at a bad company. In general, my experience is the exact opposite, employers want to keep employees healthy: it saves them money in the long run. –  smithco Mar 11 '11 at 4:03
    
I have been working in software development since the late seventies. The cold hard truth is that the software development industry is addicted to uncompensated overtime. Most software organizations are little more than hi-tech sweatshops. That's why companies prefer to hire young software developers. Young developers are so enamored with technology that they fail to realize that they are being exploited by their employers. Software developers who dare to to develop a life outside of work or make time for their children are "managed out" of most software organizations. –  bit-twiddler Mar 11 '11 at 19:24
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Unions are a necessary evil. We may not like them at times, but they are our only check against unchecked corporate greed.

Anyone who believes that professionals do not join unions is misinformed. The two best compensated practitioner-oriented professions in America are both unionized. The American Medial Association (AMA) and the American Bar Association (ABA) are little more than unions by another name. They serve as gatekeepers for their respect professions and provide a voice for practitioners in politics, which are the most important activities in which most labor unions are engaged.

Furthermore, you can bet you rear-end that hi-tech employers are unionized. Their union is called the Information Technology Association of American (ITAA). The ITAA uses its substantial political clout to suppress wage demands through workforce dilution. Even the libertarian economist Milton Friedman noted that the H-1B program is yet another form of corporate welfare. That labor subsidy would not be in place if it were not for a union composed entirely of hi-tech employers.

In closing, I am not a member of labor union, but I would be willing to join a union structured like the AMA or ABA. I also support the professional licensure of software practitioners. The barriers to entry are far too low in this field. This situation leads to poorly-quality software and a revolving door career model where most of the practitioners in the field have less ten years of experience.

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There is a big difference between professional organizations like the AMA and the ABA and unions. Those originations provide certifications, whereas a union provides a barrier between employees and employers. –  smithco Mar 10 '11 at 16:46
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To quote a friend of mine, "Unions are pretty good at helping the worker until they become powerful enough to be pretty good at helping themselves." I'm all for keeping corporate greed in check, though it's not a battle of good vs evil. It's a careful balance in which it's ultimately in everyone's best interest if it remains, in fact, balanced. Unemployment would be a lot higher if unions had their way with businesses. –  Neil Mar 10 '11 at 17:19
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No, the major reason the AMA and ABA exist is to provide a barriers to entry, which, in turn, protects earning power. Doctors and lawyers control their professions, not their employers (if they are not self-employed). No one can practice medicine without meeting the educational requirements set forth by the AMA, nor can they practice medicine without passing specialized board exams created by the AMA. No one can practice law without graduating from an ABA-accredited program and passing the BAR exam. The AMA and ABA both lobby congress to keep corporate interests out of their professions. –  bit-twiddler Mar 10 '11 at 17:37
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Republican politicians in Wisconsin received death threats from union thugs today. As much as worker rights must be improved, I couldn't possibly advocate support for such mentality. –  Neil Mar 10 '11 at 18:12
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I do not support strong-arm tactics. However, what is going on in Wisconsin is really an attempt by one party to cut off a major source of funding for its opposition through union busting. The only time people pay attention to state worker compensation is when times are tough. When times are good, no one wants to be a state employee because the overall compensation package is much lower than what one can earn in the private sector. State employees are not getting rich off of tax payers. Government contractors are a completely different story. –  bit-twiddler Mar 10 '11 at 18:25
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If you work in government you might not have a choice. Programmers here aren't 'professional' employees because there is no accredition body for programmers.

Interestingly there also isn't for physicists, you can be working on a satelite with a physics PhD but you are in the same union as the janitor. While your boss who just managed to scrape through an environmental engineering (?) degree is a professional.

And before you start thinking of an AMA/ABA type organisation - they have been proposed regularly, normally by large software companies. If you have to be a professional to produce software then there is no open source, no Linux or Apache. But you could still have all those wonderful Access and VB apps as long as the programmer had been on the accredited MS-Access training course.

Actually that's not quite true - software is rather more portable than legal or medical services - everyone else in the world would have Linux and Apache but the US would be forced to buy MSFT server or Oracle and only employ MSFT certified devs.

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Are you a member of a trade union? Why? Why not? If you are, and don't mind mentioning it, which one?

Do you know of any programmers who were helped by being in a union, or would have been helped by being in a union? Do you know of any programmers who were hindered or would have been hindered by being in a union?

LOL, there is no need for one. Programmers can pick up their bag and leave whenever they want and get another employee. There are lots of businesses in different sectors that need programmers.

The reason why say teachers need union is because where the hell else they're going to find another employer? There is really only 1, the government. Yes there are charter and private and what not. But really man, that is rare. So yeah... ^_^ (<-- teachers union sympathizer). The problem with public sector too is they tend to suck you in with pension so if you leave the pension is going to cash out so you can't move your pension around like 401k unless it's another gov job (once again 1 boss). So most of those teachers are stuck unless they want to forfeit and cash their pension.

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One can just pack one's bags and look for another position if one is twenty-five. However, that tactic does not work once one passes the age of forty. A forty-plus-year-old who pulls that trick will more than likely never find full-time employment, regardless of his/her skill set. Older software practitioners are held to a different standard than their younger colleagues. For those who in their twenties, take a long hard look at your peers. Four out of five of you will out the industry by the age of forty-five. Software development is not a profession in which one can grow old gracefully. –  bit-twiddler Mar 11 '11 at 2:32
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It is very true that it's easy for programmers to move around. I think this is especially true for senior-level programmers with tons of experience. It can be near impossible to find top-tier programmers with 20+ years experience and many companies will pay top dollar to get them. –  smithco Mar 11 '11 at 4:39
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@ bit-twiddler I've just went to a Ruby Convention in LA (yesterday), and most of them are 35+ and they seems fine. If you mean it's harder to pick your bag and leave cause you're tie down by families and other social stuff than I can understand. But I don't believe aging ungracefully is true if you are active in your field and actively learning new things. –  mythicalprogrammer Mar 11 '11 at 17:23
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Companies do not want forty-plus-year-old software engineers. Fifty-plus-year-old software engineers have a greater chance of being hit by a freight train than they do of landing a full-time technical position. That's why most of the software developers over forty are contractors (all of my friends are contractors out of necessity). I am over fifty, hold undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer science, work daily in Java, C/C++, Object Pascal, and PL/SQL, and have over thirty years of hardcore experience, which includes the design of several commercial products. I am not lacking skills. –  bit-twiddler Mar 11 '11 at 19:47
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@smithco, I just noticed that you are in California. You are the beneficiary of some of the strictest labor laws in the country. California is the only state that I know of that places bounds on classifying software developers as "exempt" employees. I live in a state in which software development personnel are classified as "exempt," regardless of income level. –  bit-twiddler Mar 11 '11 at 21:00
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This was the last straw for me. Nasty business. I am not going to go into details about my employer's failings with respect to employees or otherwise, but the case is very typical of the wider corporate ethos.

Despite being generally anti-union, I joined Prospect in the UK. "Prospect is the trade union for professionals" which "provide[s] work related advice, support and services". Seemed appropriate. And for about the same price as a daily latte in the work restaurant.

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would you mind explaining more on what it did and what it was bad for? "Link-only answers" are not quite welcome at Stack Exchange –  gnat May 1 '13 at 5:03
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