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Debate rages over need for IT union

Users pretty much agree high-tech work visas and offshore outsourcing spells bad news for IT workers. But the idea of an IT workers union doesn't sit right with everyone.

IT workers are outraged over alleged abuses of high-tech work visas and offshore outsourcing exploits but, for the most part, they're mixed on whether unionizing is the way to bring an end to the business practices that are putting thousands of them out of work.

In an exclusive survey, 44% of respondents said they did not believe forming an IT union was the answer to stopping the visa and outsourcing abuses. However, 39% said unionization was the only way to slow the mass exodus of IT jobs.

At the center of the debate are high-tech work visas, such as H-1B and L-1, and the increase in offshore outsourcing.

While slightly different, both the H-1B and L-1 visas allow U.S. companies to hire foreign workers in order to alleviate the shortage of U.S. IT workers -- usually at a much lower hourly rate. Offshore outsourcing moves high-tech operations from the U.S. to another country -- ultimately eliminating IT jobs here in the U.S.

Unions workers' only defense

Critics of the work visas and offshore outsourcing practices contend that businesses are taking advantage of loopholes in the systems, exploiting U.S. worker for bigger profits and, ultimately, creating havoc in the IT work force. Many of them contend that a united IT professionals' union with a strong voice in Washington will put an end to it.

"It's about time IT workers organize to fight back corporate abuses," said Bill Leyva, an IT manager with Jacuzzi Inc., Walnut Creek, Calif. "I say let's start an exclusive IT union that will really look after the best interest of the domestic IT community."

According to Dante Vignaroli, an outspoken advocate on the issue, if American IT workers had joined together even as little as two years ago, there would be fewer American workers out of work today.

"It appears to me that American IT workers in general, and especially those with a job, have to get past this stigma of the word 'union' and fight for their lives," Vignaroli said. "This problem will only get worse if allowed to continue without a vast majority of American workers being an American citizen and protecting each other."

But not all IT professionals agree.

Kenneth K. Atri, a senior network engineer for Boston-based Cimetrics Technologies, said that while he understands that offshore outsourcing of IT functions and services have an impact on domestic employment, the country cannot ignore the fact that globalization is a dual-edged sword.

"One cannot possibly maintain world dominance and at the same time become protective just because, out of 210 million jobs, 400,000 went offshore," he said. "On a global scale, if American businesses want to be competitive and be profitable, they have to do some 'offshoring' as well as import very qualified people to bring a new, fresh point of view to vitalize American business."

Raymond Bassett, an ERP applications support analyst for The Hain Celestial Group, Melville, New York, said that it's too late to form an IT union. He said too many IT workers got caught up in the Y2K craze and figured they'd be sitting pretty for a long time. Unfortunately, Bassett contends, businesses eventually found a cheaper way around skyrocketing salaries and found a much cheaper pool of resources for the future. Now, said Bassett, is not the time to be asking if the industry should have a union.

"Now we are asking whether we should unionize? Now after the damage has been done? Now after all Corporate America knows what they can get away with? Now we are asking should we unionize? The best thing that we can do right now is to re-prioritize and re-evaluate our lives," Bassett said. "Because the real question is: Should I take that programming job that's paying half of what I'm use to making or should I hold off and wait -- wait for that person from overseas to take that same job and leave me flipping hamburgers for $8.00 an hour? Unions are not the solution to our dilemma."

Uphill battle for organizations

The diverse opinions within the IT community give little hope to organizations such as the Programmers Guild and the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, which is an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America that's also known as WashTech. Both groups are trying to organize IT workers.

"Unfortunately, my experience has been that 'organizing' IT types into anything is similar to herding turtles," said Dick Young, a mainframe DB2 DBA consultant for Fort Worth Technologies, in Fort Worth, Texas. "Hard enough to get them to agree on a lunch destination -- let alone a social/political organization and goal."

However, Young said that he would sacrifice a day's pay to participate in an organized demonstration if he felt it would have some effect or at least garner publicity for the problem. "If the Communications Workers of America could take the concept of WashTech and spread it nationally," he said, "I would seriously consider joining as a dues-paying member."

But groups trying to organize IT workers say it's an uphill battle. According to John Miano, former chairman of the Programmers Guild and now a law student, the groups leading the fight are tiny.

"Until programmers actually start to organize, nothing is going to get done to stop the offshoring," he said. "I'm shocked we have not had a national programmers' strike already."

According to Mike Blain, a member of Seattle-based WashTech, organization at this point is scattered, and many of the group's members are employees at large companies that join voluntarily. Increasing membership has been slow, and Blain admits there is resistance on the part of the worker.

Not your father's union

The real problem may be that IT workers simply don't want to unionize because of the blue-collar stigma associated with unions.

"The idea of traditional unionization, in terms of rate and wage setting, contract negotiations, etc., causes me some uneasiness, and I am not sure if I could support traditional unionization," said Carl Sastram, president of Excel Data Systems Inc., in Shelton, Conn. "I do believe that a trade organization whose primary role is to monitor, advise and lobby for our interests is something that I could support completely. I would even be willing to become actively involved in such an organization."

Some resist the idea of a union that would be based on the management-versus-line worker mentality.

"Programmers are independent thinkers, and unionization suggests "group/mass" thinking," said one IT worker who asked not to be named. "In the shops that I have worked in over my 32-year career, programmers are salaried and look at as being part of management."

But Blain feels that kind of attitude is what has hindered groups like his in their efforts to have a real voice in Washington. He's hopeful, however, that this point of view is beginning to change.

"I personally think we need something national that can address this immediately, because the stakes are getting high," he said. Blain said that, historically, tech workers scoffed at unions. They saw other union workers lose their jobs to offshore outsourcing but didn't give it a second thought, he said.

"Maybe because they thought they were different because they're educated and the union workers were not," he said. "Now, they see themselves in the same boat. They see it coming to get them, too. A lot of tech workers are starting to think how their interests are tied to other workers in this country that aren't necessarily techies."

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