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Can US software developers form an ‘open source’ union?

The CyberLodge

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There has never been a successful union-style organizing movement among US software developers. Ian Lurie, who runs a Seattle Web design firm, believes this is because traditional "industrial" union structures don't serve programmers' needs very well, but that a new, "open source" union structure based on pre-industrial craft guilds might make lives better for people in the job-nomadic IT industry.

Lurie has financial backing from a major traditional union, so this is more than a vapor-level dream. And there are certainly plenty of disgruntled -- often unemployed -- programmers, sysadmins, and other IT workers out there right now who might be willing to join a group that promises to help them find decent-paying jobs with union-style benefits.

The union backing Lurie's effort is the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (AIM). Lurie's firm, Portent Interactive, designed the AIM Web site. Together, they came up with the CyberLodge concept.

Lurie says, specifically, that the idea was developed jointly by "myself and the Communications Director of the IAM. I've been running my company for about 8 years, and saw more and more jobs being offshored, as well as some truly horrific management practices that, while they began during the boom, have persisted in the 'market correction.' We came to the conclusion that the issue here is one of power. Mid- to large-sized consultancies and other software/tech companies have a great deal of combined lobbying clout, plus a lot of dollars they can move around. And while tech workers have the ability to counter that when necessary, they're totally disorganized."

An obvious response to this is, "But most of them seem to like being disorganized."

Lurie agrees. "So," he says, "a traditional union is out of the question for a number of reasons:

  • Tech workers are far too transient to belong to a 'union shop'.
  • There's no way tech workers would WANT to be part of a traditional union.
  • In my opinion, employers need to be much more involved with this organization than in a traditional union.

"We need to strike a balance between the need to present a reasonably coordinated message and the need for a highly flexible, portable organization that lets tech workers work the way they do today.

"The 'Open Source' concept came from my belief that we need to listen to folks before we try to form this organization, and then allow the tech workers to play a central role in the growth of that organization."

Naturally, one of CyberLodge's first acts was to put up a Web site. Lurie says it already gets more than 10,000 visitors per month, and that the number is rising steadily. Right now, a great deal of the content seems to harp on the problem of IT jobs going overseas, admittedly a large one for U.S. IT workers, but what could a union of IT workers do about it?

Lurie says, "I think (fighting against) offshoring requires two strategies: 1. You have to change the way the workforce works. 2. You have to balance out overwhelming political power on the part of big capital. And somewhere in between you have to wake people up. That requires a good-sized membership base to start, but I don't think we're talking tens of thousands."

So far the number of CyberLodge members is zero. There is currently no way to join. But, Lurie says, "We're shifting our strategy, like, NOW, from information-gathering to putting together a proposal for prospective members."

One major membership draw may be union-sponsored, portable health insurance puchased thrugh CyberLodge's AIM connection. According to Lurie, the cost to a single, 36-year-old non-smoker for a decent plan would be around $120 per month. "That's for standard health care, not just 'I got hit by a bus,'" catastrophic coverage, he points out.

This health insurance would "belong to" the employee, not an employer, so it would be of especially high value to IT contractors and consultants who flit from company to company, which is the group at whom the initial CyberLodge membership drive will most likely be targeted.

Employers would be able to hire CyberLodge members without worrying about supplying benefits like health insurance and 401K plans, which they would get through the union. Lurie also talks about setting "standards" rather like the apprentice, journeyman, and master statuses granted by craft unions to workers who meet a set of skill, training, and experience criteria. In theory, an employer who hired, say, a CyberLodge member "Journeyman Java programmer" would be getting a worker of proven ability who could sit right down and go to work.

"I really think education and placement will someday be a major part of Cyberlodge," Lurie says. "We need to provide a connection between sharp, quality employees and employers. We won't decline membership to folks based on experience. But it will, eventually, be important that employers know that a Cyberlodge member is a great contractor/employee who can add real value to their company."

Remember, Lurie is an employer, not an emplyee. He says, "My ulterior motive in this is to build a better workforce for ME." Another factor is that he -- or at least his company -- is getting paid to put together the seeds of CyberLodge, although he points out that at least half of the time he puts into CyberLodge is uncompenstated; that it's "about 50/50" volunteer and paid work on his part.

"Seriously," he says, "We've really come at this as much from the needs of employers as employees, in a lot of ways. And part of the reason for that is that I do run a company, and a tech company at that.

Another obvious question came to mind here: "What if your employees all join CyberLodge and go on strike?"

"I'm not worried," Lurie replied. "I work very hard with my employees to make sure that we all do well. And that's how Cyberlodge should work, too."

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