Want to stop your job from being outsourced? Join a union.

At least one systems administrator has had enough: It's time to hit the picket line.

Published November 6, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

When I was a kid, my dad's pager was the least favorite item in our house. When he was on-call, my family couldn't go to dinner or a movie or Grandma's house, for fear that the contraption would go off and call him away to the office. When it did go off, and there weren't many weekends when it didn't, my dad would trudge to the phone, speak into it using loud and profane words, and then, if needed, put on his coat and shuffle off to the location of the latest emergency. Things got so bad, I seriously considered running over his beeper with my neighbor's Big Wheel.

Was Dad a doctor, volunteer fireman or paramedic? Nothing of the sort. He was in I.T., before the term "information technology" ever existed. As a mainframe technician, he would be called in at a moment's notice to replace a defective board or swap large DASD units in order to keep a customer's big iron running.

Although he endured many lost weekends and dirty looks from his wife and children, he did so knowing that his sacrifices would be rewarded with overtime pay, at time-and-a-half rates on many occasions. His sacrifice enabled my family to live a comfortable middle-class existence and provided my brother and me with quality college educations. In fact, both of us have followed in his footsteps, working as system administrators to pay the bills.

Of course, in the modern world of I.T., emergencies still occur. When an Internet worm like last summer's MSBlaster cascades through the networks of unprepared corporations, knocking servers off-line, admins like myself put in 16-hour days for as long as needed to get things running properly again. When the network goes down or the power goes out, we are the first ones on the scene to bring things back online, no matter what time of night it is. Holidays, vacations and personal commitments are secondary to our availability to work in an emergency. We are asked to work mandatory unpaid overtime and be held prisoner by our pagers, all under the constant threat that our jobs may be eliminated or sent to some distant and cheaper land.

Unfortunately, for most people in I.T., the days of getting overtime pay have ended. So, what do we now get in return for sacrificing our time? A small raise in our base pay? Sometimes. Extra bonus money? Not in this economy. Compensatory days off? Yes, but it never makes up for the time put in. A pat on the back? Maybe, but those "attaboys" are quickly forgotten. The only thing that information technology workers can count on getting in return for their efforts is insomnia, ruined weekends, angry families and stress-induced heart conditions.

During this post-boom era in the technology industry, managers have been telling their underlings that they are lucky to even have jobs, and that they should just take what they can get and wait for the market to improve. But they say these things knowing that, individually, each person has little power to make things different for him- or herself. It makes a person wonder: In the face of longer hours, cuts in pay, and the outsourcing of jobs overseas, why haven't more I.T. workers organized themselves into unions?

The technology sector is grossly underserved by organized labor. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10.8 percent of the over 4 million people working in technology in 2002 were members of unions. The only lower percentages were seen among categories that are traditionally perceived as not needing union representation: managers and executives, salespeople, farmers and general service workers. Meanwhile, according to Forrester Research, 3.3 million white-collar jobs will be permanently sent overseas by 2015, the leading category of which will be I.T. workers. Other estimates suggest as many as 14 million jobs may be at risk from offshoring.

A massive unionization of information workers would put them in a position to collectively bargain with companies about hours, wage increases and benefits. Workers would no longer be ordered to work mandatory unpaid overtime; if there was a call for their services on weekends, holidays and overnights, they would be able to sacrifice their time knowing it will be duly compensated. Limits on layoffs can also be negotiated into a collective bargaining agreement, assuring workers that their jobs won't suddenly be shipped where labor is less expensive (at least until the CBA comes up for renewal). Through collective bargaining, I.T. workers will receive time flexibility, something they have not had in quite a while.

Of course, there are several drawbacks to unionization. Since the pay and bonuses are structured by the CBA, top performers cannot be rewarded as highly as they might be now, while bottom feeders will be equally rewarded for substandard work. Deadwood cannot be cut by layoffs without the union getting involved. CBA negotiations, as Verizon workers found out this past year, can be contentious, played out through mudslinging media campaigns. Union workers may end up on strike, without pay, for long periods of time. Finally, unions that have gotten too much power have been known to stand in the way of efficiency, as their negotiated rules of what work they can and cannot do become more restrictive over time. This breeds tension and resentment between the nonunion workers who just want to get the job done and the union workers who are constantly filing grievances when they are asked to do work not in the contract (or, conversely, when a nonunion worker performs tasks union workers are contracted to do).

Even with all the caveats that come with joining a union, I.T. workers need to seriously consider this option. Without the strength in numbers that collective bargaining provides, conditions for technology workers are bound to get worse, especially if there are fewer jobs to be had.

There's always going to be a crisis. Someone will unleash another virus, another hard drive will go down, another blackout will occur. As always, we in the I.T. ranks will be there, working late into the night to get things back to normal. It's a part of the job we can't avoid. The time has come, however, for us to get something back for our labors other than just a handshake and acid reflux disease. It's only fair.

By Joel Keller

Joel Keller is a writer whose entertainment-related stories have been published at The A.V. Club, The New York Times, Vulture and Fast Company's Co.Create. He was also the editor of TV Squad. He hosts his own weekly podcast at AntennaFree.TV.

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