Labor union analog for knowledge workers.

I have participated in debates in the past here trying to explain why our current Unions are not suitable for knowledge workers. These debates have convinced me that making the required changes to both attract and address the needs of these workers are impossible to integrate into our labor union system without destroying that same system for labor.

I am using the term knowledge worker to describe a person whose job involves handling or using information to produce services.

Some examples of issues with traditional unions in the knowledge market are:

[li]Time based seniority basis for opportunity and advancement.[/li][li]Global salary rules and pay growth through seniority based advancement.[/li][li]Inflexibility in job descriptions and official advancement paths based on the previous two.[/li][/ul]

But as the portion of our economy is based on knowledge workers continues to grow the same issues that drove the labor market are effecting a larger and larger portion of individuals whom are in fields which are incompatible with those traditional unions.

The reason I placed this in GD and not in IMHO is because the main blocker for any movement would be the NLRB and traditional unions. Part of this opposition would be a very justifiable fear that incompatible needs would further the interests of anti-labor union needs but part would be due to a power struggle.

My question is what form could a parallel system be developed to meet the needs of this large population without destroying the other.

And in what way could this effort happen before the rise in automation and the decimation of the labor market due to coming technologies like autonomous vehicles happen.

Or is the risk so high for the remaining populations that depend on collective bargaining to keep food on their tables that the effort to protect workers while providing opportunity for education and careers in the knowledge field are not worth the potential damage.

The Era where America attracted the worlds brightest and thus the innovation is ending. Former labor based economies also move into the knowledge services worlds and new technologies and services are being developed globally at an ever increasing rate. While I do not personally believe in any intrinsic form of American exceptionalism we are falling behind in an area where we have traditionally had an advantage partly due to the issues surrounding a lack of collective bargaining for a large portion of what remains of the middle class.

Several issues like insane work hours, massive debt for out of date education and systemic issues within corporate culture are driving a significant portion of these issues which block both productivity and innovation and they could in part be addressed in a collective fashion.

I could see something starting as an Info Tech Workers Benefits Cooperative. An employee-controlled group that offers things like health care, dental, life insurance, disability insurance, vacation, pension plans, and probably group discounts at various retailers.

This would offer the employees increased flexibility to change jobs – they can switch to a new employer without worrying about having to switch health care plans, or that they will lose vacation time or pension vesting. Probably quite a benefit, since frequent job changes is already a common thing in the IT industry. Sort of like the Teamsters Union offered to drivers – they could switch to another trucking company easily, with health benefits, vacation, & pension unchanged. (But the workers might want to keep a closer watch on the pension funds than happened at the Teamsters.)

For the employer, this offers the advantage that they now have fixed costs for most of these benefits: they pay the agreed amount each pay period, and their part is done. (This is already happening in some respects, with the move to defined contribution pension plans, a limited company payment for health car & the employee pays the rest for whichever plan he chooses.) The other advantage for the employer is that they do not have the overhead of administrating things like health care plans, or negotiating new ones each year, or worrying about the returns on pension investments. Nor do they the problem of employees upset when they learn “that service is not covered by your plan” and blaming the employer. The Benefits Co-op does all the administration, and takes the blame if employees are unsatisfied. (This will be especially valuable to small employers – often they can not afford the overhead to offer all the benefits big companies do, or get the same rates for them – but via the Benefits Co-op they can give the same as the big companies.

There would be resistance, of course. Many companies would dislike the ease of job-switching this would enable. And the fact that their competitors would offer the same benefits – they’d have to compete for employees by offering better pay or more pleasant work environment. Also, many would object to any hint of having to bargain with a workers co-op.

Innovators of the World, Unite!! Somehow that just doesn’t sound right…

I’m struggling to understand what problem this is trying solve. Long work hours? Many knowledge workers feed their egos (and earn their stock options) by working long hours. Any cap on working hours is going to be met with a cap on pay. College loans? What evidence is there that this is a problem for “knowledge workers”? Systematic issues within corporate culture? What does that even mean? With all due respect, that sounds like something you just added so that there would be 3 items on the list. Looks more like a solution in search of a problem.

If we’re falling behind other countries in this area (not sure I accept that, but for the sake of argument), is it because those other countries have 'knowledge worker unions"? If not, what makes you think that’s the answer?

I suspect the countries we are falling behind have fewer workers rights than we do.
I assume the knowledge workers who are downtrodden are grunt coders and video game peons, not more highly positioned ones.
But not all union jobs are inflexible as manufacturing ones. SAG sure isn’t. I don’t know about government unions - my mother worked for New York City for a while, and was in the union, and I don’t recall it ever being an issue. Union workers on the PBX line in the AT&T Denver factory were given a reasonable amount of authority and flexibility without the union minding.

I think this is a solution looking for a problem. The reason most engineers, lawyers, programmers, etc, aren’t unionized is that they don’t need the collective bargaining. They have enough leverage on their own to negotiate higher pay/benefits/etc without having to pay union dues.

Not to mention it means they have the flexibility to request things they care about more than others. Why should I sign up for the “average” vacation plan if I’m happy to negotiate a better vacation package for a lower salary? Why should I give up my excellent health plan for the average health plan offered by the union? Is the union going to try negotiating whether or not we have a beer fridge? I sure hope not.

I don’t see a problem with labor unions for those that need them, but OP needs to understand that not everyone needs a labor union.

I agree … unionizing “knowledge workers” is a solution looking for a problem. Pay and benefits are great, no real problem with forced child-labor, working conditions are a dream come true, worker safety is inherent … what the labor unions fought for 100 years ago is all pretty much enshrined in law now.

Not many knowledge workers would allow union rep to step in front of them to negotiate salary and benefits.

They all think they are smarter than the union rep is, and 99.9% of the time they are right.

The era of a “knowledge worker” being only limited to traditional professionals like engineers, lawyers, programmers, etc is over. We have helpdesk analysts, graphic artists, payroll specialists etc… Even among programers, while the term “Software Engineer” may be used to legally exempt them are not working at a level that allows them the level of power you speak of. While my job level would be excepted, and while it does co-opt a term that I am also embarrassed of “Systems Architect” I do see dozens of my peers whom both would be willing and do need more protection from insane working conditions and restrictions.

Many of these people work at wage levels that are not far off of that of a Police officer, transit worker or nurses whom all have representation. But due to the less quantifiable work and because they are explicitly exempted from protections of a union they would never be exempted and yes as you noted a traditional union would not work for them. This does not mean that they are not being abused, they are forced to work insane hours that make them sacrifice their personal lives and health just to stay employed. They are not allowed to take the vacation that they are given if they do they are required to work on their vacations. Not every single tech worker is a workaholic, but the industry requires them to.

While some job titles have been forced to offer overtime due to lawsuits, like dbas, most are purely exempted because the law allows for it. If they were allowed to organize and had a way to organize which would not actually add to work load they would.

Even if we limit the discussion to programmers, they are often treated like factory workers. People with no programming talent are often in charge of projects. They treat programmers are cogs in the machines and not all can be very good to excellent developers but they still provide value. The number of displaced workers we could attract to the industry would go up if it wasn’t for the high personal cost required.

We are not creating more labor jobs in this country and without creating a permanent underclass with a much lower standard of living I doubt we would be able to if we wished.

I was blessed with a career path which did not require organizing, but I see lots of coworkers and organizations which would benefit from it.

I think you have confused “some subset of industry is toxic” with “the entire industry is toxic”.

I’m a software developer. If my boss called me on my vacation, I wouldn’t bother picking up. If he demanded I start working 45 hour weeks, I’d find a new job (last job search took about two weeks, but I wasn’t looking very hard). If I started getting verbal abuse, I’d leave too.

You know why? I have the skills to not put up with that. Those same skills mean a union would be a net negative for me, because I’d be giving them a cut of my paycheck to get salary/benefits that aren’t as good as I could negotiate for myself.

Don’t confuse “there are shitty employers in this industry” with “a union is needed in this industry”

What do you mean by ‘knowledge worker’?

I can think of many staff who need to prepare important documents and reports, and make life changing decisions for others, are they knowledge workers?

I know of others who develop national guidance documents based upon company and government policy, are they knowledge workers?

Your definition of 'knowledge workers is extremely narrow

You are also referring to a rather narrow set of terms and conditions, all you are talking about is pay and hours, but the total package is very much more than that.

Money and hours are relatively easily matters to bargain for collectively - but you are being naive to assume that this is al that work is all about.

You have not mentioned bullying, racism, sexism, equality of opportunity, investigations, disciplinary procedures, professional registration, training, you have not mentioned anything about making reasonable considerations for disability, nor have you mentioned pensions, bonuses, overtime, permanent and temporary promotions, leave, holiday pay. What about public confidence in your organisation?

You have not mentioned anything about staff mobility, out of hours service, voluntary and compulsory redundancy, you have not mentioned the need to collectively ensure that the working environment is safe, you have not mentioned car parking, personal security.

How about company subsidised child daycare, lots of places have it, lots of places don’t, what about maternity and paternity leave, how about sick pay? How about jury service? Who is going to negotiate a deal for private healthcare provision?

Here is the reality check, no company or organisation ever offers you more than you want, all organisations need to moderating force to prevent excesses by autonomous managers.
I am going to assume you are relatively young, because you concentrate on the simplistic matters around work, it is very much more complex, and even if you do not need someone to negotiate your pay hours and flexibility of work role - you cannot possibly know all the company rules and precedents, along with your legal rights.

Of course, you might pay a retainer to an employment lawyer, but that it likely to be more expensive than joining a union.

Being in a union does not oblige you to adopt a political outlook, but it might be the basis of self protection when it hits the fan, and never think that just because you never do anything wrong, and that you are a good employee, that it won’t go wrong for you - try saying that to the boss when they are going bankrupt or robbing you of your pay.
'cause that never happens, all employers are straight up honest

I don’t think the OP has much information about knowledge workers and unions at all. First, there are unions that represent knowledge workers - my former union represents pretty much all non-management NYS employees with jobs requiring college degrees from the IT folks to the lawyers to the doctors and social workers and lawyers. There’s a Doctors Council in NYC that represents doctors who are employees of hospitals, clinics etc rather than having a private practice and the Legal Aid attorneys in NYC have a union which is affiliated with the UAW.

The items you mention aren’t necessarily part of a union contract and in fact, some of it I’ve never seen although I have belonged to 3 different unions.

[li]Time based seniority basis for opportunity and advancement. - Nope, seniority had nothing to do with advancement in any of my jobs. Promotions came through either interview or a competitive test. The only kind of advancement that came through seniority was if a person was hired as a trainee X they would become a full-fledged X after a certain amount of time ( which was the same amount of experience needed to be hired off the street as a full-fledged X )[/li][li]**Global salary rules and pay growth through seniority based advancement.**Pay growth in the same title was based on seniority as you moved up the steps on the salary scale, but no real seniority based advancement.[/li][li]Inflexibility in job descriptions and official advancement paths based on the previous two. Inflexibility in job descriptions- to some extent, although it’s hard to see where well-defined crosses over to inflexible. If the job description keeps the teacher from being told to clean the restroom, which is it?[/li][/ul]
Those things go into a union contract because the members want them . Management is not proposing those items- management would be just fine promoting whomever they choose and being able to tell the teacher to clean the restroom. If you and some like-minded people organize a union and don’t want those provisions, you don’t have to have them. It’s not like there is one standard union contract that all unions use, and even a single union may have different contracts with different employers.

The reason is that, generally speaking, knowledge workers aren’t interchangeable cogs. Even among knowledge workers in the same industry at the same level, there is a wide variation in the amount of subject matter expertise they hold. A knowledge worker’s leverage with his employer is based on the knowledge and experience and relationships he holds, as opposed to his ability to unite with his coworkers and stop working en masse.

This is exactly right. Unions are meant for people who are essentially interchangeable cogs in the machine of production. When all workers provide essentially the same level of economic value, they have little individual bargaining power and unionizing makes sense.

Knowledge workers vary widely in experience and capability. They have unique knowledge sets. This gives them significant bargaining power, and that’s why they are generally highly paid and have good worming conditions and benefits. Unionizing a work force like that would be a disaster.

I guess we need some clarification about what’s meant by “knowledge workers”. As doreen noted, there are quite a few unions who represent workers who could reasonably be described as “knowledge workers”, such as teachers, doctors and lawyers. Graduate student employees and adjunct higher-ed faculty are forming unions. Registered nurses have unions. Are these workers not “knowledge workers”?

AFAICT, the appeal of a union is based not so much on what kind of “knowledge set” the workers have, or whether or not they’re “interchangeable cogs”, as on how much power they have within their workplace. You appear to be defining “knowledge worker” as “well-paid white-collar worker with good benefits and working conditions”, and concluding from that, rather tautologically, that knowledge workers shouldn’t have unions.

White-collar workers seem to have no problem unionising in some other parts of the world. So there can’t be something inherent in the sector.

That’s a distinction without a difference - the reason they have power in the workplace is because their knowledge sets make their labor worth more to an employer than the labor of an interchangeable cog.

Skilled workers therefore already have more power in the workplace. They are thus less in need of unions - they can get more of what they want because the cost of replacing them is higher than an unskilled worker.


That can depend on the market, I have seen very skilled workers who have surprisingly poor terms and conditions, their knowledge is so specialised in their fields that the market for their labour is limited.

I saw this with maintenance workers who operate contracts on ultra-sonic medical equipment. The pay was ok’ish but given the level of knowledge and skill, nothing like as good as you might expect, same with some radiography equipment.

I also recall that the Seaward is not a good payer in relation to the skills they source, ad result is that they have a high staff turnover - I remember one of my tutors on electrical eng course had worked for them, that person was at Chartered eng level.

EA were absolutely notorious in the software industry, and had screwed their programmers for a number of years, took a class action lawsuit to reel them in - you cannot generalise over knowledge workers and representation, they operate in different markets and different dynamics.

In the UK, the medical doctors union, BMA, has always been seen as extremely conservative less a union and more an association - as per the name, however it have been agitating and bringing its members out on strike in a long running dispute over changes to contracts.
In fact when you look at unionised labour history, you will see time after time after time, strikes and disputes with skilled workers unions bringing industrial actions, the only reason you might not call them knowledge workers is only that technology has frequently reduced or modified their knowledge to such a level its not as rare or not as essential, however at the time in history they would most definitely be considered knowledge workers.

Anyhow, tell me that these workers do not need union protection

The only reason the software industry gets away with it is simply because of the lack of labor organisation.

It also torpedoes the OPs proposition

Counterexample - the Screen Actors Guild, a very powerful union. Given that each job requires several levels of interviews (auditions) actors are hardly interchangeable. (Extras are, and they get less pay and worse treatment, including food, than principals.)
There is an underclass of non-union productions. They are characterized by lower pay, worse conditions, no residuals, and sometimes an unwillingness to pay in a timely fashion.
Lots of big name actors (including Ronald Reagan) are or were SAG supporters, because they know what it did for them coming up.

I’ve read many horror stories about what companies do to game developers. Unions are very valuable if a lot of people want to get into an industry, which gives companies lots of power, even when not dealing with cogs. Game developers are one example, actors as I mentioned above are another.
Companies will be good to workers right up to the time supply exceeds demand. IBM just laid a bunch of people off with only one month’s severance, which is very low for tech. That just shows there is no shortage of tech workers since this is going to be a big impediment to hiring, I’d think.