Issue #42: Trade Unions

Divide Et Impera

Divide and Conquer is a common technique for algorithm design: quicksort, discrete Fourier transforms, and even MapReduce are common examples of such a technique. It consists in breaking down a problem into smaller parts, so as to solve the whole of the problem. It is also a common technique in politics, known and applied since before the times of the Roman Empire. It consists in breaking down society into smaller parts, so as to rule the whole of society.

In the software engineering industry, itself a product of capitalism and liberal democracy, the division of the workforce has been the most brutal and successful of them all. No other field of human activity is today as atomized and disbanded as software. No other worker is as unaware of their status as a software worker. No other worker is more prone to harass, dismiss, belittle, and supress unions and unionized workers in their own field of activity as the software worker.

This is, in retrospect, probably the greatest success of the capitalist system in all of its history, and the statistics of software tycoons and their abominably huge fortunes are there to prove it.

The common tales of riches and fame carried by figures like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin, have served the common narrative that software was a new “far west” where money was to be made, and where workers could “change the world” from a proverbial garage.

And changed the world they have, however in ways that were not optimal from a societal point of view. The software industry is today best represented as a uniform mass of white caucasian males between 25 and 35 years old, ruled by a small minority of CEOs of Eastern origin.

It is a field of harassment for people of color, for women, for older engineers, for anyone not fitting the categories set forth in the previous paragraph.

Reality is very different from the fairy tale spread in the pages of Forbes. Software workers are the new factory workers of the 21st century; a group of workers where obesity, deafness induced by earphones worn in noisy open spaces, and carpal tunnel syndrome, are all visual marks of stress and abuse. The invisible ones being mental health issues; burnout, harassment, depression, all conveniently ignored by insurances, managers, and other board members.

Let us talk about those at the top, precisely; one of their key tenets being the active lobbying, particularly in the minds of younger members of our industry, that unions are a bad thing™®©. Those same young generations, always eager to buy the new PlayStation or to read Reddit, but never eager to read Montesquieu or Kropotkin, will grow in their jobs with the idea that the software field is a manly one, where unions are for the weak of mind, which we will not hire, because they could not reverse a linked list on a whiteboard, anyway.

The last hit song of Belgian singer Stromae, called “Santé”, is a tribute to all those workers behind the scenes in our modern world; the ones growing or catching the food we eat; the ones transporting us; the ones building and cleaning our facilities; those who more often than not, we simply do not see. Interestingly, Stromae mentions airline pilots among those; a profession that, if we believe Leonardo DiCaprio, still had a certain prestige back in the 1960s, long lost since low-cost airlines became a thing in the 1990s.

How long until Stromae releases an update to this song including software workers among those groups? Not very long.

Software will not eat the world and every company will not become a software company unless software workers become part of a uniform, unnamed, and preferably not unionized, shadow. It does not matter whether you are a UI or UX designer; whether you are a C++ or a Ruby software developer; a DevOps engineer or a security consultant; or even a young CTO in a new startup. You are part of the shadow. You are one of those making the modern world go round.

And you have been told a lie. You have been denied an identity. You have been told that we must not, worse, that we need not unionize. Heck, some companies go as far as firing unionized workers. They pretend that we are better off pursuing the liberal dream of the independent success story, “shooting for the stars” and “changing the world” with your shiny new SaaS or mobile app VC-fueled venture. “Follow your dream,” or so they say.

You are a software worker. And you are able to do your job in more or less good conditions only because you are standing on the shoulders of countless others. No, we are not talking here about Open Source. We are talking about the fact that if you have 20 days of holidays, if you only work 5 days a week, if you are able to take some days or weeks off after the birth of your child, it is because some others before you have sacrificed their lives so you can work in decent conditions.

Yes, their lives, even though history only kept the names of the executioners.

The foosball table, the retirement plan, the dental insurance, the free lunches, all of it is a screen of white noise covering your eyes and ears. It is simply a way of generating “platform lock-in” between you and your employer. Nothing else. And you know that platform lock-in is to be frowned upon, right? Why would you tolerate it in your life, then?

Joining your local worker union should be as important in your mind as contributing code and monies to your favorite open source software. If you live in Switzerland, there are a few choices; this author is affiliated to Unia, itself a member of the larger Swiss Trade Union Federation.

You are a software worker, and you should be proud about it.

Oui, célébrons ceux qui ne célèbrent pas;
Encore une fois, j’aimerais lever mon verre à ceux qui n’en ont pas.

Cover photo by Brian Wertheim on Unsplash.

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Adrian Kosmaczewski is a published writer, a trainer, and a conference speaker, with more than 25 years of experience in the software industry. He holds a Master's degree in Information Technology from the University of Liverpool.