Are knowledge workers beyond unions’ reach?

Are knowledge workers immune to the appeal of organized labour, or are they just waiting for the right model to come along?
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/28/2004

In the heyday of the high-tech boom, knowledge work emerged in exemplary form, a model of employment that expects passion, dedication and initiative from workers and in turn rewards them princely for those very qualities.

Unionization of knowledge work — or, to follow through with this example, of information technology work — seemed an improbable prospect in those halcyon days. What could a computer game designer or an e-commerce developer need from a union that they couldn’t get from their already doting employers? On-site massages for the pets they brought to the office?

Those days are indeed over, leaving IT workers with increased joblessness, a continual threat of skills obsolescence and the equally daunting prospect of offshore outsourcing. Devalued, certainly, but are these workers turning to unions? And if they do, do unions have the right model to accommodate their distinct work ethos?

Lloyd Field, a management consultant and author of the book,

Unions Are Not Inevitable

, said he has seen a few instances of unions going after white-collar knowledge work, including a “half-hearted” attempt by the Canadian Auto Workers union to organize employees at Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion, the people who make the BlackBerry personal digital assistant.

He has also seen unions depart from the traditional strategy of going after large employers to target knowledge workers in smaller shops, workplaces that employ 25 to 50 people.

But Field doesn’t see the unions’ message resonating with workers in these sectors.

“High-tech companies will dote on their engineering and technical staff. They will heap praise, money and recognition on these folks, because they clearly appreciate that these people are the business, and that it’s their creativity and innovation that make the business,” said Field.

“So the employer goes the extra mile and treats their workers with respect. The employer probably works them greater hours than anybody would like to see them work, but that seems to be the trade off from the employees’ point of view.”

Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay, a Canada research chair on the organizational-social challenges of the knowledge economy, has seen a few short-lived attempts to organize high-tech workers.

“In a lot of these new sectors, people are very individualistic. In the gaming industry, in particular, which can be very competitive, workers are always looking for the opportunity to work on the top-notch software,” said Tremblay, a Montreal-based professor at Télé-Université, the province’s distance-learning university. “Hence, they’re willing to sacrifice on certain things like wages or hours, just so they can stay on top of the market.”

Workers in knowledge-work sectors also tend to be predominantly young and male, thus unconcerned with such benefits as work-life balance and pensions. They also tend to be nomadic, going from contract to contract or alternating full-time work with freelancing, making it difficult for unions to organize. In the biotech sector, people aren’t as mobile, but they tend to work in small development labs, which are also difficult for unions to reach, she said

But most of all, workers in these sectors have a different level of commitment to their craft. “Game developers, for example, play the games all the time, thus blurring the line between work and play. Working in the gaming industry, you have to play games to stay on top of the industry, to come up with something new. So for them, it’s like a life project. It would be very difficult for a union to say, ‘Don’t look at the games after working hours.’ It’s a different world.”

In search of a model

So if knowledge workers are truly a different breed, as Tremblay and Field intimate, is there then a model for organizing this breed?

There certainly are unions out there accommodating an independent-minded, self-driven class of workers. One of these is the independent Professional Employees Association based in Victoria, which started out in 1974 to represent licensed professionals in British Columbia’s provincial public service — professionals such as pharmacists, psychologists and engineers. Now representing 2,500 members across the province, the union has had to adapt to accommodate members who have a different mindset about work, members like IT workers at the University of Victoria.

These workers often bring with them private-sector experience, so they come with different expectations about work, said union executive director Jodi Jensen.

“What’s interesting is, because they bring in different expectations with them, the way we’ve modelled the collective agreement in those areas has been unique. It’s certainly different from the kinds of public-sector collective agreements in terms of hours of work, overtime arrangements, promotion opportunities,” said Jensen.

For example, people have more autonomy in determining their own hours. They might work overtime for days on end to see through a project and bank the extra hours. And unlike people in most unionized environments, they neither have to worry about getting their manager’s approval for overtime, nor deal with colleagues hassling them for working too hard.

“It has to do with professional pride. Professionals know that there are going to be times when they do have to put in an extra amount of work, because they are invested in what they do. They have a professional reputation. So no, we don’t ever hear things like, ‘Oh you’re making the rest of us look bad.’”

Further, seniority doesn’t mean much to these kinds of workers, said Jensen. “So for promotional opportunities, we have language that speaks to the best qualified candidate getting the job,” rather than the traditional language which says, of those qualified people, the most senior person gets the job.

What’s more, the union has stayed independent — having no affiliation with either the Canadian Labour Congress or the British Columbia Federation of Labour — out of the recognition that its members do not take well to union discipline.

“And that’s because we recognize that licensed professionals have two masters. They have to answer to their regulatory body as well as their union. So if a union insists on a licensed professional going out on strike, that professional might think, ‘Well if I do, I would violate my code of ethics and put my licence in jeopardy.’”

And although not all members are licensed professionals, said Jensen, they generally share the same commitment to their professions.

A union for the entrepreneurial

At the Winnipeg-based Telecommunications Employees Association of Manitoba (TEAM), business manager Larry Trach said a union of a knowledge-based workforce has to have the flexibility to match the go-getter spirit of its members.

TEAM represents about 1,200 workers — some in management — at the Manitoba Telecom Services, a former Crown corporation now publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The union started out as a voluntary association and managed to bargain a collective agreement as such; then, when management refused to bargain with it in 1986, the voluntary association sought and won a certification vote.

As with Jensen’s union, TEAM has had to depart from traditional models in many ways, most notably in its downplaying seniority as a factor in any staffing decision, from promotion to layoffs.

“Management employees are more entrepreneurial. They expect to be promoted on the basis of skills, qualification and performance more so than on seniority,” said Trach. Even when seniority comes into play — as a tie-breaker — it’s defined as “time with the company” and not “time with the bargaining unit,” as is often the case in many other unions.

And in another departure from the traditional union model, compensation is structured so as to reward high performers. On top of the base salary, the union negotiates a bonus plan that can kick in for sales staff who exceed targets, for example, or for project teams that deliver on time and on budget.

The five-per-cent bonus pay is fixed in collective bargaining, Trach said, but management has “quite a bit of discretion” in doling out the bonuses to the right people.

Variable pay still anathema

But not all white-collar, knowledge-work unions want to do away with traditional collective agreement staples. Local 911 of Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, is one of the few private-sector high-tech unions in Canada. Based in Regina, it represents about 270 IT employees at ISM Canada, a former Crown corporation now owned by IBM Canada.

As a union of high-tech workers, said president Gary Schoenfeldt, local 911 has had to de-emphasize seniority in favour of skills and abilities of workers — but only for a certain class of workers, those in the analyst stream.

Under constant industry demand to upgrade skills, these members wanted to get credit for the time and effort they put into training and development, said Schoenfeldt.

“They felt it was a waste of time, energy and money to take all those classes and then to be held back by someone with higher seniority.”

Seniority, however, continues to be a key element for operations work, for which training takes place on the job. “You can’t go to university and learn this stuff,” said Schoenfeldt. “And because management controls training for these people, we insisted on retaining seniority as a main factor in determining promotions.”

And while unions like TEAM may negotiate for variable pay, Schoenfeldt said it’s not something that interests his members.

“We don’t like the idea of the boss having control over pay, in terms of when you get a raise and when you don’t,” said Schoenfeldt.

“Other parts of IBM use variable pay all the time, but we don’t like that. It doesn’t fit in with the trade-union idea with collective bargaining. It’s bargaining one-on-one, and that’s something that’s anathema to trade unions.”

Schoenfeldt acknowledges that it’s still very difficult to organize in the IT sector, partly because of a lack of awareness of unions among younger workers, but partly because employers are taking measures to head off unions’ organizing attempts.

“IT managers are very cognizant of the fact that their workforce is prime for organizing. So they take steps to put the idea out of people’s heads. They come up with all kinds of reward systems,” said Schoenfeldt.

“I think most IT companies are very conscious of what would happen if they treat employees the way people in the factories were treated 30 or 40 years ago.”

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