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BART strike provides stark contrast to tech's non-union world

While tech workers stay unorganized, the tech industry is getting more organized

The strike by San Francisco Bay Area transit workers this week is a clear and naked display of union power, something that's probably completely alien to tech professionals.

Tech workers aren't organized in any significant way except through professional associations. They don't strike. They bargain as individuals, aren't represented by unions and, as a group, have little clout in Washington.

But the tech industry is highly organized, and getting more so. Industry lobbying spending has been steadily rising, reaching $135 million last year, almost as much as the oil and gas industry.

In the first quarter of this year, tech spent $35 million on lobbying, much of it on immigration, according to OpenSecrets.org data. New groups, such as FWD.us, led by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, have appeared.

But in just one day of striking, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers have cost the local economy about $73 million in lost productivity due to delays in traffic and commuting, estimates the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, a business group. The strike began Monday.

That figure doesn't include "lost direct impacts," such as the workers who didn't buy lunch downtown, "or had to put more gas in their car because they're on the road for 1-2 hours more a day," said Rufus Jeffris, a spokesman for the council.

The strike's disruptive economic impacts will dissipate once the labor action ends, but tech industry lobbying in Washington may result in changes, particularly on the H-1B and STEM green card increases, which may last a generation.

The strike has produced a torrent of back-of-forth discussions on Reddit and other message boards about the legitimacy of the strike, and the pay of BART employees.

Transit management contends that the "average union worker makes $114,000 a year in wages and benefits." The San Jose Mercury News did its own analysis and said the average BART worker, including management employees, made about $83,000 in gross pay last year.

Regardless, the BART salaries are high enough to draw comparisons to tech wages, but the discussion is complicated by such issues as transit agency-funded pensions and better job security. What isn't up for debate is the absence of unions from tech.

Software workers, as with a lot of professionals, view themselves as people with special skills, capable of individually bargaining for themselves, and believe they have enough power in the industry to get what they want, said Victor Devinatz, a professor of management and quantitative methods at Illinois State University College of Business, who has researched union organizing efforts in the tech industry.

"They believe that a union really won't do anything for them," Devinatz said of tech professionals. He said tech union efforts are split between software and low wage production jobs, where workers may fear job loss because of union activities.

Devinatz said it's difficult to know what might spur efforts at "pre-union formation," or initial steps toward a union, by software workers. An increase in offshore outsourcing is one. High-tech workers might be influenced by efforts in other professions.

For instance, as more physicians are no longer self-employed, the America Medical Association is supporting unionization for doctors.

In explaining why unions might be interested in organizing doctors, David Leffell, a physician and professor at the Yale School of Medicine, noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, that "doctors essentially provide a service, one that cannot be outsourced to India or China."

For unions to get off the ground with software workers, Devinatz said, "They have to believe that collective action would be possible vehicle to get the kinds of things that they want and that they deserve."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is [email protected].

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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