My dad was a union pipefitter in the United Association, which is under the AFL-CIO, a large international union, so I always grew up understanding the importance of organized labor.
I'm a software engineer now. Even though tech workers are pretty progressive and often work on social good related projects, there aren't very many tech worker unions. Some of it is that software engineers are paid well, so we often think that we don't need unions, but I disagree.
One story that my dad would tell is how he got started as a pipefitter. After high school, he wanted to go to college, but he didn't have the money and didn't want to go into debt. The union had an apprenticeship program that provided training, pay, and an opportunity for jobs afterwards, and that's what he's been doing ever since. This is a big problem in software engineering, too. I was lucky enough to have great computer science teachers, but many high schools and colleges can't hire good teachers because they can't pay as well as places like Google and Facebook. Tech workers unions could help shoulder some of the load of training the next generation.
My dad also talked about how his union cared about ensuring that there was a consistent, high quality of output. In the case of a plumbers and pipefitters union, that helps ensure that your building is up to code and won't have mysterious problems with the air conditioning in a year because someone cut corners. Tech needs that too. We cut corners all the time to get products out the door. Except when we cut corners, it looks like accidentally exposing millions of social security numbers. Or making a website that doesn't work for blind people or non native English speakers. Or making it easy to interfere with elections. We need to hold ourselves accountable to building the right software, not just making something that's profitable, and unions are a great institution for standards and accountability.
When you think of manual labor, you probably imagine a male dominated industry. But my dad would also talk about what the union does for diversity and equity. About how he has had female apprentices who had risen through the ranks into management. And about how the salaries are standard, so someone doesn't get paid less because of their gender. They prioritize diversity, and because they're an international coalition, they have significant leverage. Versus software engineers, who are mostly white and asian men. Where it's harder to get into the industry or to get equal pay if you don't fit that mold. Where many companies don't do more than pay lip service to diversity and inclusion, and even the organizations who do the best are mostly working alone rather than changing the industry.
So even if software engineers get paid well, there are a lot of problems that I've experienced that organized labor could help with around training, standards, and diversity and equity.
Other tech workers are starting to realize this. Recently, the workers at Kickstarter started to unionize, which will make them the biggest unionized tech company. But there are other models too. The Tech Workers Coalition started a few years ago as an act of solidarity between full time workers and contract workers at tech companies, so that people like security guards, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers could get better working conditions, and they've done some amazing things over the years.
I don't know what the future looks like for tech workers. If I were in a union, it might look different from my dad's union, but that's okay. As an industry, we need to start prioritizing what's really important. And seeing a small but growing movement of tech workers interested in unions makes me hopeful for the future.