Saturday 10 December 2016

Why have the unions given up on tech firm engagement?

Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30

'Lots of other tech companies have nothing like the stability of Intel. Many invest heavily in jargon around self-empowerment as a way to avoid taking on additional responsibilities themselves. For the moment, people at these companies buy into this. They don't demand unions...'
'Lots of other tech companies have nothing like the stability of Intel. Many invest heavily in jargon around self-empowerment as a way to avoid taking on additional responsibilities themselves. For the moment, people at these companies buy into this. They don't demand unions...'

Ever wonder why tech companies with large workforces in Ireland don't have unions? One reason is that they're strongly dissuaded. Another reason is that unions, by their own admission, don't really try to get involved.

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On one level, it's an odd situation. Tech companies employ at least 150,000 workers in Ireland. And this number is growing faster than almost any other sector.

But 'stakeholders' - from company executives to union leaders to political parties and State policymakers - are reluctant to discuss unionisation in any way. Two current industrial relations events, the lay-offs at Intel and the Luas strike, illustrate the point.

Intel is laying off several hundred workers at present. Not only are there no unions in place to discuss conditions, but none even appear interested. It's a different story with Luas drivers. Even union leaders not directly involved in negotiations appear keen to air opinions on it.

This isn't new. As a country, Ireland has always looked the other way when it comes to tech companies and unions.

Because tech firms pay well and have high participation rates from well-heeled programmers and engineers, workers there don't demand collective bargaining in the same way.

So the unions leave the whole thing alone in Ireland, more or less.

But unions' lack of interest may come back to haunt them. Because if you look around, many companies are beginning to emulate the methods of tech firms.

From hiring practices and 'pop up' offices to always-on availability and the use of contractors, we are all starting to act a bit more like Airbnb or Google in our work surroundings.

A preference for short-term contracts is increasingly being characterised to young workers as something positive and modern. It brings 'mobility', 'opportunity' or even 'independence', according to recruiters. And lots of people now believe it.

This is Mark Zuckerberg's world, not Henry Ford's. Those under 30 don't see the relevance of the Lockout or the Starry Plough. But they can see the free fruit bars and dry-cleaning that their new companies give them.

So if tech companies' working methods are our future, have unions outlived their usefulness?

There are signals from the US tech sector that unions may have some sort of future in the 'new economy' - albeit a very watered down one.

Last week, online taxi company Uber agreed to recognise an 'association' representing its 35,000 drivers in the US. This new 'Independent Drivers Guild' stops well short of conventional union characteristics, with no collective bargaining rights and no benefits such as disability or holiday pay. Instead, it merely allows an elected council to raise and discuss issues of concern with the company in a formal way. Minor benefits will include group-discounted insurance and legal services.

In exchange for recognising this 'association', Uber appears to have been given assurances that the Guild will not attempt to press for full unionisation for Uber drivers or pressure the company into recognising contractors as employees (which would automatically attract more legal protections and benefits).

So is this the future of industrial relations in Ireland?

The idea is laughable under conventional notions held by existing large Irish unions. But as recent events in Intel show, the ground under which Irish unions currently operate may be ebbing away.

"Most employees just don't see the need for a union," Intel's vice president and head of its Irish operations, Eamonn Sinnott, told me previously when I asked him about this issue.

"It's hard to see anything you could point to that would be better done if there were someone else representing you. If we were treating people badly or were guilty of inappropriate behaviour or if our standards and practices weren't up to what they needed to be, that might be the day that people might start to seek representation by third parties for them. But it would be such an antithesis for our business because it is so dependent on a rapid and open flow of communication from folks."

Intel isn't some fly-by-night operation. Nor does it chug from giant vats of Kool-Aid. It's a stable, consistent company that has been in Ireland over 25 years with long-term jobs.

Furthermore, the terms it is reportedly offering those facing redundancy could not be regarded as mean. So if you were to point to a big company that appears to act creditably by its workers, Intel might be a candidate.

But lots of other tech companies have nothing like the stability of Intel. Many invest heavily in jargon around self-empowerment as a way to avoid taking on additional responsibilities themselves. For the moment, people working at these companies buy into this. They don't demand unions.

But that doesn't explain why unions don't bother even trying with Ireland's biggest expansion industries. Is it some sort of antipathy to the private sector generally? Have they given up on everything but public sector bodies?

Right now, few in tech companies care. In a few years, maybe even fewer across different industries will.

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