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    I’m all for unionizing, not out of “unionize all the things”, but because I’m interested in how different power structures might effect different results: experimentation, if you will, but not at the cost of free association.

    I grew up in a family of public school teachers. I’ve seen unions mess up badly.

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      My wife is a teacher in the public system and we both have mixed feelings about the union representing teachers. It does some wonderful things, but then goes out of its way to defend some absolute garbage people simply because they are in the union. And heaven forbid it if you have any critcisms of the how the union operates. Neither of us think it’s so much a union thing as it is the lack of care put into building a large organization since similar problems exist in companies.

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        I’m not super-attached to the idea of unions, but it’s pretty obvious to me that we are getting exploited by the companies–especially startups–that we work for.

        I’m not sure that a full-blown union system is the answer, mostly because I trust the soft skills and systems thinking of engineers about as far as I can thrown them, but we need to start organizing as a class of labor on some basic things that keep screwing up the market for all of us:

        • Forced arbitration
        • Broad NDAs
        • Broad non-competes
        • Broad assignments of invention and other IP
        • Lack of profit sharing
        • Bad equity for early-mid stage engineers
        • Uneven salary systems

        Every company and startup gets some of these wrong, and few (if any of them) right, but because it’s accepted as “standard practice” we all end up having to endure them.

        I don’t think we can find a one-size-fits-all solution for, say, salary ranges or other more esoteric issues, but my belief is that those specific things enumerated above are both achievable and universally beneficial for developers. They would benefit both the folks that think they can be the smartest engineering in the company and somehow make out like in the 90s, and the lifers who just quietly and competently do their jobs and switch companies when it’s time.

        We need to push for them.

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          “I trust the soft skills and systems thinking of engineers about as far as I can thrown them”

          I was a bit surprised to read that. I know engineers are infamous for falling short on “soft” skills but isn’t systems thinking supposed to be a forte of engineers?

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            One would think so!

            In my experience the first thing most smart (note: not wise, just smart) engineers reach for when consulted with a misbehaving situation, especially involving humans, is a system. They have this idea that some intricate set of deterministic protocols and social customs will save them from the ickiness and uncertainty of dealing with other sentient rotting meat. They’re invariably wrong.

            Outside of dealing with other people in meatspace, my current work in web stuff has similarly colored my opinion of “systems thinking”, to the point where I basically don’t trust anybody to reliably engineer anything larger than a GET route backed by a non-parameterized query to a sqlite database–they tend to want to add extra flexibility, containers, config files, a few ansible scripts for good measure, maybe some transpiler to the mix to support a pet stage 1 language feature, and all this other nonsense.

            So, sadly, I’m reluctant to trust those folks who overengineer and underempathize to successfully build and manage a union.

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              Engineers are famous for thinking that a new bit of technology could revolutionize systems which include human social behaviors.

              I’ve met 2-3 engineers in the past decade who I would call ‘systems thinkers’. I’d like to make it onto my own list, someday.

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            I have on my reading list https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/47czc6ch9780252022432.html, which talks about the self-organized unions in 1930s that preceded NLRB, and the ways in which they were more democratic and more responsive to membership.

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              I eagerly await your synopsis of it and maybe I’ll pick it up myself. I enjoy your writing!

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                Taft-Hartley in the 1950s had a terrible effect on unions, partly by banning wild-cat strikes and boycotts both of which forced union leaders to be responsive to members.

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              Somebody on mastodon pointed out a couple problems with this article that I missed on first read-through:

              • it confuses the system’s teleology with the ruling class’s teleology. VCs and tech management probably don’t union-bust or embrace Hank Scorpio style false class equivalence in order to drive wages down, because they probably don’t actually have a mental model of how industries work – they are probably doing these things because it’s part of the culture, and no mastermind exists. The article says a lot of “CEOs do X because Y” when they should be saying “When CEOs do X, the result is Y”, rather than implying that CEOs know what they’re doing and are doing it intentionally.
              • some of the claims about hackathons & coding bootcamps are more specific to the united states than the author seems to think. The guy who pointed this out claims that in New Zealand hackathons are largely non-profit community projects & coding bootcamps aren’t focused on getting high-paying tech industry jobs; not sure if his view is representative of NZ in general, but he thought the idea of hackathons being a tool of capitalism totally alien.
              • the focus on labour eliminates the intersection of labor and various essentially-political movements in the tech sphere (free culture, copyfight, open source, net neutrality, slow tech), even though the deradicalization of these movements by the industry (freewashing, the movement from free software to ‘open source’) can be interestingly compared to other kinds of ‘perks’. Because deradicalization defangs movements that are agitating for genuine change, it’s a much bigger deal – freewashing harms the whole community, while a ping pong table in the lounge just helps scam a handful of ping pong fans into becoming employees.
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                The article says a lot of “CEOs do X because Y” when they should be saying “When CEOs do X, the result is Y”, rather than implying that CEOs know what they’re doing and are doing it intentionally.

                This is a great point; the emergent outcomes of “this is how it’s done” are just as harmful if not more harmful than a shadowy cabal of conspirators. In particular, if you ascribe it to intention it’s a much weaker argument, because counter-examples of folks acting without that malicious intent are easy to find.

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                  On top of that, the appropriate strategies for dealing with systemic stuff are very different from the appropriate strategies for dealing with people who have particular (undesirable) intentions or plans. In the latter case you can convince those people, or fight them directly, or take away their power; in the former case anybody in that position is liable to act the same way, so you need to fundamentally restructure incentives.

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                I wonder how many tech workers have first-hand experience with unions. I was in a unionized trade (sign making) before I learned to program. Because I had no contacts within the union, I had no way of joining the union and working at union shops. My understanding was that union memberships were saved for family and friends of current members. I heard similar stories about the doormen and maintenance workers unions. These unions more closely resembled protection rackets than citadels of labor activism. I’m not generalizing to all unions and my experience is limited. But based on that experience, I am wary of wishing for a tech workers union.

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                  I’m a machinist by trade. Around here, you don’t need contacts within a union to join one. You just join one if you want, and most shops above a certain size are going to have appointed union representatives who are likely to ask you to join if you’re new. They have incentive to get as many people to unionize as possible.

                  Also there are no “union shops.” If you don’t want to join a union, you don’t. That doesn’t stop you from getting a job; whether you’re union member or not is none of the employer’s business. They still have to follow the rules for their sector agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement.

                  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_agreement#Finland

                  My first hand experience is that unions have very little direct impact on one’s life, but the collective bargaining power is probably for the best. I feel like the corps are squeezing people hard enough as is, I can only imagine how bad it’d be if there were no unions to push back. Fwiw I’m no longer a union member, but I was one when I worked as a machinist at a factory. IIRC I had to take part in a strike once, that lasted a few hours. Basically, everyone walked out a few hours earlier than their shift would normally end.

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                    “Also there are no “union shops.” If you don’t want to join a union, you don’t. That doesn’t stop you from getting a job; whether you’re union member or not is none of the employer’s business. They still have to follow the rules for their sector agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement.”

                    That’s how our company is, too.

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                      It seems like you’re in Europe? This was in NYC. But the same seems to be true in the U.S., no one can be required to join a union. The “union shops” were the bigger commercial sign shops. I applied to several, even went in person to talk to the managers. They never really turned me down but wouldn’t really talk to me about the job they had listed. I asked a co-worker about it later and he explained that it was because I wasn’t part of the union. Like I said, I heard the same thing from doormen and maintenance workers when I was on job sites about their trades.

                      I live in Germany now and organized labor seems to have a much more positive place in society. There are certain business structures that require a representative of the workforce to sit on the board. Stakeholders and unions have more of a cooperative relationship.

                      Anyways, I would mostly like to gather more information from people who have experience with a union. A lot of the arguments in favor of unions coming from tech workers sound like recollections of things they read in college. So thanks for sharing your experience!

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                    I agree, mostly because of the same reason for writing me software. To raise the bar.

                    Even in a good position like tech workers currently are it doesn’t make sense to wait for things to become worse it even have things stagnate. Like we work to progress in technology I think it’s also worthwhile to progress in the socioeconomic area.

                    That’s also true with unions. While it’s a good thing to organize I think it would be worthwhile to look at what is for, build upon it but also to find what should be done better.

                    There’s also new kinds of (sometimes) bad things happening. For example people being paid in equity, which can be a risky income and for that expected to be there for the company 24/7. Especially young people tend to trade sanity and physical health for the slim possibility of getting rich. This is not to say this should not be possible, but more to say that it’s good to be aware of the fact it’s not worth it. In unions the upsides and downsides can be talked and informed about.

                    Even though to some people it seems like it I don’t think unions doesn’t need to be a form of pressing everyone into the same contract. It’s most of the time about knowing where you stand and in best case the outcome is that all sides are happy. In the end it’s about the kind of people you have, like in every company.

                    Yes it’s two sides of the table and it can be tough, but that’s the case in negotiations with unions just like it’s in the case of negotiations with a business partner or in a job interview. Keep it fair and both sides will be happy and the management will win for not having to rediscuss things over and over.

                    And of course it always goes both ways. But acting like organizing is a bad thing is just nonsense. Especially in the context of an organization.

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                      This is quite a stretch.

                      Why is it that tech workers don’t think of themselves as “workers”?

                      Why is it that governmenty-people want everyone to think of themselves as a worker? It would benefit everyone if we moved towards more autonomy, not less. The “employee” status is a crutch, and trap, and way of giving bureaucrats more control. Why isn’t everyone their own corporation? More sovereignty, not less.

                      called out for colluding via anti-poaching schemes to suppress wages. As part of a longer-term strategy, these tech giants have also partnered with schools, supported coding bootcamps, and sponsored programs that teach minority youth groups to code.

                      Haha, that’s a hot potato. I’m guessing that message will need a massage before it reaches the union talking points slidedeck.

                      Their goal in technology education is not to simply expand their consumer base to the youngest and most marginalized of our society, but to increase the labor supply of the future and subsequently drive down wages for decades to come.

                      Unions increase friction. Friction reduces mobility. No, thanks.

                      It’s hilarious to me that we have the privilege of existing in a time where control freaks haven’t yet figured out a way to regulate this thing called software, and because of that, a very fluid and egalitarian market exists where you can go from high school, prove yourself on a whiteboard, and get a pretty nice job.

                      And yet the Local 41 people want to bring in the overalls and flannel and make this industry the same as all of the other industries that have been ruined. And they complain about whiteboard interviews, and want to replace it with committees and certifications and degrees.

                      Be careful about the people with whom you raise pitchforks. Or don’t, I don’t care. But I told you so.

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                        Why is it that governmenty-people want everyone to think of themselves as a worker? It would benefit everyone if we moved towards more autonomy, not less. The “employee” status is a crutch, and trap, and way of giving bureaucrats more control. Why isn’t everyone their own corporation? More sovereignty, not less.

                        There’s a difference with diagnosing how things are and how things should be.

                        Anti-poaching agreements between the top tech companies is a thing that happened. Everyone in SF had their wages surpressed because the owners of these huge places decided they shouldn’t have to fight in a fair labor market. It is undeniable, there is court evidence and everything, that there was massive collusion to make sure that those who had the shortsighted-ness to go into an employment agreement with them would have their mobility reduced.

                        Yeah, sure. Would be great if people could just work and have relations of trust. But so long as the person on the other side of the negotiating table has massive infrastructure dedicated to paying the least amount of money to you, standing alone is a sure-fire way to get a worse deal.

                        There’s tribalism and other organizational ills in unions, but…. welcome to “put more than 3 people in a room”. There’s self-interest and politics in every org.

                        The egalitarian software market creates something where people like Lewandowski can go around and collect millions off of claiming other people’s work as his own, and other people can’t even get interviews at other companies because of secret agreements. It’s a market where the loudest people get the biggest wins (see every single post about organizational dysfunction at Google that means that nothing actually gets maintained).

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                          The egalitarian software market creates something where people like Lewandowski can go around … where the loudest people get the biggest wins …

                          Assuming unions and regulations solve that somehow, it’s a petty reason to install an long-term bureaucracy. What did we gain exactly, besides sticking it to some (imagined) character you didn’t like?

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                            “other people can’t even get interviews at other companies because of secret agreements”

                            That’s not what the secret agreements were about; they agreed not to cold-call each others employees to try and get them to leave but they did not agree to not interview each others employees if they applied to positions.

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                            It would benefit everyone if we moved towards more autonomy, not less

                            Autonomy is (rightly) coupled to responsibility for outcomes.

                            Employees are not given autonomy or responsibility for outcomes (for so, so many reasons).

                            Autonomy is worthless unless you can capture the benefits of doing a good job.

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                              Unions increase friction. Friction reduces mobility. No, thanks.

                              It’s hilarious to me that we have the privilege of existing in a time where control freaks haven’t yet figured out a way to regulate this thing called software, and because of that, a very fluid and egalitarian market exists where you can go from high school, prove yourself on a whiteboard, and get a pretty nice job.

                              And yet the Local 41 people want to bring in the overalls and flannel and make this industry the same as all of the other industries that have been ruined. And they complain about whiteboard interviews, and want to replace it with committees and certifications and degrees.

                              Be careful about the people with whom you raise pitchforks. Or don’t, I don’t care. But I told you so.

                              The assumption that wanting to regulate the software industry is the mark of “control freak” is way off. Software is no longer marginal. It has long since eaten the world. It affects every detail of most people’s lives in the first world. Anything with those implications needs regulation. It needs a class of workers who are trained in a semi-standard fashion that includes concerns about the ethical implications of what they’re doing. In other words, it needs to be an actual engineering discipline.

                              Also, this specifically seems way off base to me:

                              a very fluid and egalitarian market exists where you can go from high school, prove yourself on a whiteboard, and get a pretty nice job.

                              Is the implication there that the hiring market right now is easy to move around in, but with more standardization it wouldn’t be? That just doesn’t jive with the data that exists out there for tech hiring. It’s essentially random right now, there is literally no such thing as a meritocracy. Companies are making hiring decisions based on which way the wind blows and whether or not your interviewer liked what they ate for breakfast. More industry wide standardization would make things much better.

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                                It affects every detail of most people’s lives in the first world. Anything with those implications needs regulation.

                                I don’t know where the idea came from, but just because something is ubiquitous does not mean it needs to be regulated. Rather it happens that ubiquitous things attract control freaks because they are predisposed to the obvious.

                                It needs a class of workers who are trained in a semi-standard fashion that includes concerns about the ethical implications of what they’re doing. In other words, it needs to be an actual engineering discipline.

                                “It” (software) is a very generic thing, and a future where one needs to consult a trade guild to sell software, will be sad.

                                It’s essentially random right now, there is literally no such thing as a meritocracy.

                                Compared to other industries, I don’t see how you can make that claim. “Merit” is demonstrated ability, and it is clearly the case that many tech professionals are hired based on some demonstration of ability rather than only credentials, connections, etc.

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                                I agree. This socialist “class”-based thinking, along with the fundamental economic misunderstandings of the socialist worldview is fundamentally dangerous. Besides, unions are bureaucracy and bureaucracy makes everything worse for everyone. I don’t want people to organise, especially not on my behalf. It’ll undoubtedly make my life harder. Or does this writer know what’s best for me?

                                I’ll advocate for my own interests, thanks.

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                                  I really like the bureaucracy that inspects milk for contaminents, prohibits people dumping benzene in the water, and vaccinates children. Probably I’m not a good person.

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                                    It’s bizarre that as the level of union participation went down , the amount of bureaucracy went up. Also note an interesting fact, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the government industry privatized following the recommendations from Chicago school economists, the total number of government bureaucrats increased! Capitalism is really good at creating bureaucracy, both public and private.

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                                      …fundamental economic misunderstandings of the socialist worldview…

                                      Besides, unions are bureaucracy and bureaucracy makes everything worse for everyone.

                                      You seem to think you know what’s best for me… This is a silly argument. No one is advocating for you any more than you are advocating for other people by advocating against socialism on the Internet.

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                                        At least in Australia where I live, union political campaigns lead to:

                                        • Making employers liable for employee deaths and injuries at work (leading to a huge drop in workplace deaths and injuries)
                                        • Meal breaks (previously factory workers had a full days shift without food)
                                        • Annual and sick leave
                                        • Maternity leave
                                        • A high minimum wage (initially enough that one fulltime job could support a family; has declined since)
                                        • 15-20% more income (according to the governments Australian Bureau of Statistics)

                                        That’s not to say they don’t do any harm. Variously:

                                        • Education union rules made it impossible to fire permanent teachers, causing schools to employ tons of staff on precarious 6-months contracts.
                                        • The dockworkers union picketed after a untrained, non-union crew were brought in and did the job faster with a better safety record.
                                        • There are constant claims of criminal behavior among the CFMEU (though how much of that is true vs Murdoch is hard to say)