Should programmers be unionized?

Should programmers hit the picket line? Credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Software programmers are generally a well compensated bunch. But could they still benefit from organizing and bargaining collectively?

As you puckheads out there (like me) know, the NHL season is finally about to get underway this weekend. For you non-puckheads, the hockey season would’ve normally started back in October but, for the third time in the least 18 years, the team owners locked out the players in a fight over money. Luckily, unlike the last time they did so, in 2004-2005, we’re not going to lose a whole season because of a labor dispute.

Why am I writing about this here on ITworld? Because, this labor dispute, which has directly affected my entertainment options, made me think about the issue of unions and programmers.

Namely, should programmers be unionized?

I’m not talking about some sort of professional association to license or accredit programmers or lobby on their behalf, like the AMA. No, I’m talking about a real labor union whose purpose is to enable programmers to collectively bargain for salaries, benefits and such. Like the Teamsters - but nerdlier.

It’s an issue that comes up now and again and a question that regularly pops up on discussion boards. In fact, there have been attempts in the past to organize programmers and unions for programmers do exist today. However, for the most part here in the U.S., these efforts haven’t gone anywhere and the vast majority of programmers are non-union.

But why haven’t programmers joined together to to form a union? More importantly, should they?

A first blush, it seems silly to suggest that programmers unionize. After all, the demand for their services is traditionally strong and they’re relatively highly paid. Also, of course, programming isn’t typically done in a dangerous working environment, from which programmers need protection. Finally, programmers aren’t concentrated in one or a few industries; they’re increasingly used just about everywhere, making organization more difficult.

In short, programmers are well compensated, skilled professionals; not the type of worker that would seem to need to help of collective bargaining. Coal miners they ain’t.

However, there are still issues facing programmers that unionization could help solve. For example, promoting sane working hours. Programmers can be expected to put in long hours during code pushes, or work odd hours or weekends and holidays when supporting 24x7 production environments. This is partly encouraged by the general ability of programmers to do their jobs from anywhere. This expectation may not be a problem for a Red Bull-fueled, single, 20-something coder, but can be a nightmare for programmers with families or those who want to have a life away from work. 

Also, unionization could help protect programmers from some of the more traditional abuses that can affect workers. For example, the termination of more senior programmers based purely on salary, rather than performance. It could also protect the many contract programmers out there, who are often expected to work full time but without the associated benefits (e.g., health insurance, vacation/sick days, etc.)

Ultimately, while it’s hard to argue that programmers are any kind of oppressed part of the workforce in need of saving, I think there are some real issues that organizing into a union could help solve. However, it doesn’t seem like something that’s likely to happen any time soon, for the same reasons that it hasn’t really happened yet.

What do you think? Should programmers unionize? Are you a programmer in a union? What’s your experience been like? Please share your two cents in the comments.

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