Let’s get together: does IT need unions?

How relevant is a union in the 21st century in modern industries like IT? And what are workers rights concerning representation? This issue becomes more pertinent as the EPMU aims to boost its IT membership with a new organiser starting work next week.

The union rep called on IDG’s journalists last week.

The same union that represents journalists, the Engineering Printing & Manufacturing Union (by swallowing up the journalist union Jagpro several years ago), also represents the IT sector, along with Finsec. So Java developers, Cobol programmers and the like are lumped in with call centre staff, printers, engineers, forestry workers, food processors, postal and aviation workers. If that seems an unlikely bunch, Australian journalists join the Media & Entertainments Alliance, which includes fairground workers and circus clowns.

However, such diversity means a union of 55,000 to 60,000, says EPMU assistant district secretary Gavin Bell, an organisation big enough for full-time paid advocates, researchers and lawyers and training funds.

But how relevant is a union in the 21st century in modern industries like IT? And what are workers rights concerning representation? This issue becomes more pertinent as the EPMU aims to boost its IT membership with a new organiser starting work next week, an IT engineer from the call centre industry.

The Employment Relations Act, introduced last October, aims to “build productive employment of mutual trust and confidence in all aspects of the employment”, with both sides operating in “good faith”. Unions have legal recognition. They can gain access to work sites, recruit on site and hold two paid stop-work meetings a year. They can negotiate for their members and enforce individual and collective agreements. And all it takes is two people to bring about a collective agreement.

To kick off, workers have to decide whether or not they want to go down the union route. Union membership is not compulsory, even when many employees at a firm are in a union. However, workers must be union members to be in a collective agreement, though of course non-union members can receive the same pay and conditions under an individual agreement.

If staff want a collective agreement, they then tell their employer who must agree to negotiate with the union or staff directly. The union and workers will prepare their “demands” and, again, the employer has to talk with them. Should negotiations not produce an agreement, strikes and lockouts are possible. However, these are only lawful after at least one of the collective contracts has expired and the parties have initiated bargaining and have been negotiating for 40 days.

Should workers strike, the employer cannot require existing workers to perform the duties of striking workers, but existing workers can volunteer to do the work. Firms also can’t hire replacement workers or contract out the work of the people on strike.

Bell says you have to make your needs known. “If you believe you are worth an extra 20%, there’s nothing to stop you asking.” However, he advises people to be realistic and accept they won’t get everything they want straight away.

Many workers have lost various benefits in recent years and wages have often fallen in real terms. Individual contracts mean staff within the same firm can have varying levels of holiday and sick pay, not to mention salaries.

Employers often claim these reflect “performance”, but Bell says often you will find the more established staff receiving more than newcomers as the employer has sought to “chip away” at pay and conditions over the years.

In my opinion, pay can also be based simply on how little the employer thinks he or she can get away with. Be too keen for a job and you could “sell yourself short”. Your salary may just reflect your negotiating skills.

Staff pay level “anomolies” mean employers often prefer staff not to discuss their salaries with their colleagues. Once these are discovered, staff may then want more money or decide to leave.

Union pay data can often assess what you are worth better than you can. As professionals, Bell says their advocates should be better than you in arguing your case for you. They also know employment law, so can advise in dismissal cases, or negotiate better terms for redundancy.

Of course, many IT workers are doing well and may not feel a need for a union. But how long may this last? EPMU’s national secretary Andrew Little once raised the spectre of floods or IT workers coming on to the market and hitting the premium rates currently enjoyed. By organising they could protect their interests, he says.

Bell says his union has members earning $80,000 to $100,000 a year but they need representation as much as anyone. Not all IT workers are well paid, he says. Many earn $25,000 to $39,000 and “it gets hard to get over $42,000 to $45,000”.

Since October, 2000 to 3000 have joined the EPMU, with many from call centres, though Bell says membership is coming from IT workers across many industries.

I won’t say if IDG journos will join them, but the $5.10 per week membership fee is barely the price of a glass of wine.

Says Bell: “We ask people to participate in their future. We sell collective organisation and show people how to stand up for themselves.”

Greenwood is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Darren Greenwood. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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