Why unions won’t work for developers and could even be harmful

Just Transition - what do trade unions demand? | IndustriALL

The unionization of the tech industry, especially developers, becomes a hot topic from time to time. There’s usually a “no-brainer” argument, that tells unions and Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) are the magic bullets to end exploitation and improve greatly the benefits of employees of the software industry.

But is it true? What is the empirical data telling us? Let’s find out.

Historical Background

The concept of people from a similar craftmanship gathering together to defend their activities is almost as old as organized human activities themselves. These kinds of structures peaked in the Italian Renaissance with the creation of official Trade Guilds, but modern Unions as we know them became widely spread only after the Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century, although they remained illegal in most countries until the beginning of the 20th Century.

This was the first time in history that labor was standardized and serialized in massive scales to fit the requirements of the newly created factories.

The inevitable categorization of similar jobs into well-defined specifications made it easy to quantize how difficult and well-compensated the task was on each factory.

Management on this stage was reduced to trial and error, so working conditions and compensation varied widely from one factory to another. 18-hour shifts, child labor, slavery, and fatal accidents were more than common.

At this point, unions were really a no-brainer and began flourishing at an explosive rate bringing massive improvements on working conditions at factories. As usual, compensation still lagged behind, but the trend was clear.

By the year 1920, unions were universally spread in most of the developed world and the first international labor organization was created in Europe (World Confederation of Labour). The end of the second world war marked the beginning of the golden age of unions until the late ’70s. 

From then on, the increasing number of free-market countries, globalization, and the decline of manufacturing industries in general, created a steady reduction in unionization rates across the world. 

As we saw, most of the concepts behind unions were baked at least 100 years ago. They were a perfect fit to even the playfield of a big, homogeneous, and unskilled workforce that did mainly physically intensive and repetitive tasks.

These regulations provided a nice and rock-solid framework for almost all industrial jobs, but they were designed in a world in which most modern jobs didn’t even exist. 

The tech industry case

Medieval stone masons - Stock Image - C007/7580 - Science Photo Library

Technology workers and especially software developers have more in common with medieval stonemasons than unskilled factory workers of the ’50s.

Stonemason’s job was a delicate balance between art and engineering. They designed, planned, and built the biggest projects of their time, mostly cathedrals and castles of which many remain until today.

Each project was unique in scale, features, and requirements; and their skill and qualifications varied a lot, as well as their compensation. Even so, all the great stonemasons managed to be backed by a worldwide guild. So if you were fucked by a medieval lord or noble, you could be sure he wouldn’t be able again to find a good stonemason to finish their project.

Software Development is not a lumbermill

If you worked long enough in this industry, you’ll probably know there’s no standard employment contract for software developers. Each one is Sui Generis and almost always defined on a company by company basis. 

The same position in Company A could be paid 5x more in Company B, and compensation is only the tip of the iceberg. Some companies are remote-first, some are only in-office (probably not anymore). Some pay bonuses, some others don’t. Some pay in stock, some don’t. 

You can now begin to notice the trend… There’s no size-fits-all, and it’s a good thing. It means we are free to negotiate the deal we want.

Unionizing and things like Collective Bargain Agreements (CBA) sound amazing at first, but after you dig a little, you realize they are not compatible with our industry at all.

Do you want some examples?

  • #1 Did you strike an amazing deal with 90% stock options but a really low salary for a year? No way, the CBA set a maximum of 25% of the compensation in stock options and other bonuses.
  • #2 You managed to negotiate a 4-day workweek of 10 hours each to have 3 free days? No way bro, the CBA set the maximum regular working hours to 8, the company has to pay you the other hours as extra hours with a premium so it’s no longer viable for them.
  • #3 Do you want to casually freelance as a side-gig? No way, the CBA establishes that you need to be hired for a minimum of 40h a month to prevent labor precarization and unfair competition.
  • 4# Do you want a fully remote position? Keep dreaming, now the company has to transform your home office to be compliant with all the industrial regulations of a regular workplace to be able to offer it to you as a benefit. If not they would be liable if you happen to fall off your chair and break your wrist. 

Disclaimer: Examples not based on actual US regulations, but based on real regulations from other places with high unionizing rates like some parts of Europe and South America.

Yeah, CBA and unions can work with factory jobs to prevent 12h shift on well-defined tasks, but the moment you try to apply the same formula to high-skilled and creative jobs, the thing gets perverted as fuck in no time.

The implications of strict labor regulation seem like an abstract subject, but the world is full of failed examples. Do you want to see a monstrosity at play? Research the Argentinian labor legislation and its effects on the labor market over the last 50 years.

Conclusions

Unions are not bad per se, but they clearly do not fit in tech. People need to be aware of it. If this unionizing trend keeps growing in the software industry, the long-term effects will be catastrophic. 

These concepts can be deceiving at first. In the short term, the general level of wages can rise, but in the long run, it will only destroy jobs, cripple the industry innovation rate and kill the flexibility and perks all the other industries workers crave and envy.

Please do not believe my words, be sure to do some little digging for yourself. You need to know this union agenda is not naive and emergent from the software workers. It’s pushed by nefarious actors to endanger the leverage we managed so hard to obtain in our jobs.

Our industry is not perfect by any means, there are lots of shitty companies that exploit their workers with low pay and long hours. But still, we are in a much better position than the obsolete and slaving industries where the unions thrive to this day. Do not be fooled by these actors whose only objective is to get a cut of the juicy tech salaries by imposing union fees.


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