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Unionization

September 16, 2007

Jack Ganssle-September 16, 2007

In my recent article about H1-B visas, I scrupulously took no position on the current state of engineering employment (surplus? Shortage? Who knows?) but made the prediction that in the USA there's a negative bubble of incoming and graduating EE and CS students, which, I believe, will create a shortage in the fduture.

The emails piled in, some to the web site, some directly to me. 80-some correspondents gave opinions that ranged all over the map. A very few ad hominem attacks from people who substitute invective for reason I ignored. But most, regardless of position taken, were interesting and thoughtful.

In the article I cited data from the IEEE and other sources, which is what I based my prediction on. A lot of readers feel these numbers are being manipulated by the Institute for the benefit of business so my conclusions are wrong.

Many argued that if there was a shortage today salaries would rise. I disagree. The law of supply and demand works only in an ideal system. The facts are these: employers all have a fiduciary responsibility by law to their stockholders to maximize shareholder value. For better or for worse maximizing profit is part of this. So they will always feel compelled to hold salaries down. Offshoring and hiring H1-Bs are all aspects of this business imperative. Lobbying Congress for more such visas is another.

In many companies - not all - engineers are considered fungible commodities rather than essential strategic parts of a long-term plan. That has bred the crazy selection process where HR uses search algorithms instead of reason to match extremely narrow needs with resumes that have just the right mix of acronyms.

We're not like other professionals, like doctors and lawyers, who often have their own practices and their own unions, ah, "professional associations," which manage the supply of these people and lobby for their interests in Congress. The ABA and the AMA come to mind.

In my opinion engineers will always be treated as replaceable cogs unless we have similar, powerful organizations. Unions, to be precise.

My personal opinion on engineering unions remains unchanged from when, in protest, I resigned from the student chapter of the IEEE in the early 70s as that organization entered into one of its occasional socialist modes and pushed hard for the unionization of our profession.

Though I think the unions saved labor from the robber barons a century ago, by the 70s many had become corrupt and simply focused on confrontation. But I do suspect we'll see a resurgence of organized labor as a reaction to globalization's wage suppression in the US and the migration of work offshore.

But will engineers join in those ranks? The email from the last article was so negative, in some cases almost despairing, that I felt I was hearing the cry of Samuel Gompers.

I'm an old guy with an established career, who, perhaps simply out of pride, or perhaps from a particular upbringing, could never join a union. But what about you? Unionization: is it a good idea or not?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.


As much as I despise the union concept, I believe you are right. We tend to be focused on our employers goals and loose sight of our own needs. The only alternative for resolution,Government, has forgotten that it is there for the good of the people. Because they have control, their focus is with what ever business provides the best offer. Thus we need Unions.

- Steve Tilghman


Philosophy aside, I believe that Unions are only effective to the extent that they have a monopoly on labour. In the old days you could run the scabs out of town, but the only way to create that monopoly today would be to stop the import of goods created with foreign (non-monopoly) labour. I'm not sure that is likely, but if it happened then we probably wouldn't need a union to improve the working conditions of engineers.

- Mark Dresser


Unionization in the US will not help engineering, it will simply force more jobs offshore. Unionization of the offshore companies and employees would go further to raising salaries here.

- Scott Nowell


With the exception of certain publications in England it is interesting that you are the only industry pundit talking about this issue.

I am one of those "rabid emailers" who is passionate about this problem, I know I am one because most of my email goes unanswered and unpublished. American magazines still think they will have a market to sell their magazines in India and China, so they remain "politically correct" and would never act as a firebrand for this issue, and even have a hard time publishing American reader's emails like this one.

Why does the AMA and the ABA have such incredible control of their industry? The answer is that they didn't wait until almost half of all their business was already going outside the country. (per Embedded's latest survey). It is much easier to stomp out a small movement than a tidal wave of activity. (This is why Chiropractors still exist!)

Creating a protectionist union today would be pointless; it would just accelerate the movement to offshore development. The time to do this was 20 to 30 years ago, but I too thought it was a bad idea back then. We have already lost the battle.

I, like you, would have a problem joining any union, Engineer are iconoclasts, but these are subjective opinions, lets talk about facts.

-American business is run by accountants (no matter what their title is).

-American business is interested in only one thing, short term profits. (because the accountants will be at another company in 2 years).

-Designing a new product is expensive and time consuming, accountants don't like either of these attributes.

-Accountants don't understand what we do, and they don't want to understand (it isn't just a matter of educating them)

-Accountants think anyone with a title can do the job, no matter where they are located or what their background is.

-American Software Engineers think the latest language, OS, API, development tool, static analyzer, Ad nauseam is what matters.

-Accountants think that money is the only concern.

- The outsourcing of engineering jobs has been to India and China, because they do such a great job of making quality new products? Or because they are the 1st and 2nd most populous nations who care little for human rights, and the majority of the populous lives on less than 50 cents a day?

-The ABA and the AMA claimed reason for existence is to insure quality in their industry, the accounts don't care about quality, they will be at their next job when the lawsuits are filed!

-Potentially, would a few thousand unionized Engineers have more lobbying power than the combined power of the rest of the established American business lobbies?

So I doubt few of us would argue about these points, but assuming that they are all correct what leverage would a union use against American Business and the Government they control via lobbies?

Oh and one another thing, we as Software Engineers have to stop obsessing about the tools and methods we use and focus more on the future (or lack thereof) of our industry.

No, as I said before, "we have already lost this battle".

- Chris Gates


Representation is necessary. If any individual thinks they can negotiate an optimum employment package with management, they are sorely mistaken. While unions have their undeniable disadvantages, the benefits outweigh their drawbacks. My Father was a member of the Engineers & Scientists Guild at RCA from the '40s, and I was a member at Lockheed in the '60s. As is true in life, an individual may not agree 100% with the goals of union management, but collectively all workers benefit over the long term. Even as a Vice-President, I would have supported my engineers in seeking union affiliation.

- David Harralson


Interesting discussion you've opened up! Good for you! That's one thing our society needs more of. Oddly enough in the engineering profession here, there's hardly anything discussed, we're all mostly service intellectuals, plugged into a company to do a job.

I think unionizing is a good idea for a few reasons. One is to present a lobby to government to inform them about the dangers of outsourcing which while beneficial to business in the short term has a huge negative impact on keeping our technological edge not to mention removing middle-class wage earners into the unemployment ranks or into the lower paying service industry. A union or centralized group promoting engineering interests might also be able to revive the electronics hobby which sadly has disappeared as a source of potential engineers. A union could also be used to better match employers with engineers looking for work. These are perhaps non-traditional ways a union could be useful. Just my two cents!

- Claude Haridge, P.Eng.


I just happen to agree with your assessment of your article on unionization of engineering. I do believe in the day when labor laws needed huge reforms, unions were necessary to protect a worker's rights. As politically correct our nation has been evolving into, workers have more rights/protection than the good ole days when industries had more room to exploit the average worker. I do not think unionization would help our situations as engineers, because we are not facing exactly the same issues as previous generations did. It isn't that we are not getting paid enough or that we are not getting any benefits, it is strictly a fact that previous administrations of government have basically opened the floodgates to corporations to outsource work to foreign nations that can provide the service cheaper. I don't think there is a union out there that has the influence or resources to go up against our own government AND the corporate powers that be.

If you want an example of what damages a union can do to an organization of workers, take the automotive industry. The auto workers unions were winning because the execs did not have an immediate solution to their labor issues. Unions got greedy and in time the average worker got replaced by robotic assembly lines.

Today, corporations have an immediate answer to reducing their engineering costs (international outsourcing). What can the union do but speed the demise of the American working engineer by aggravating an already touchy situation.

- Dale Arnold


I'm 400 pages into the biography of Andrew Carnegie, so your comments on unionization and your analogies between today's electronics industries and the steel/railway businesses of the late 19th century are of interest to me.

Interesting, but I believe misplaced. And potentially dangerous.

The robber barons of the 19th century enjoyed a huge lack of market and governmental legislation. They freely engaged in cartels. They built railways that nobody needed so they could build more bridges and sell more steel and also sell the bonds for these railways to banks in Europe. They even colluded with some of those banks. They engaged in insider trading. Carnegie was largely unsuccessful in growing his business outside of the US. This could either have led to his protectionist stance or been in part a result of it.

Their workers were forced to work 12 hour days with wage contracts supposedly linked to the price of their commodity. Many of them were unskilled and labor was abundant. They also worked in dangerous environments, people died in steel mills and mines.

We can hardly draw parallels between this and the rarified atmosphere of working in technology and electronics companies.

Instead your arguments for unionization sound to me like an argument for protectionism and wage control and that you are using this platform to project a political position. Targeting the visa question and therefore foreign workers is uncomfortable to say the least. If you want to provoke a debate on free trade and how the economy of the US and the quality of life of US born engineers can best be served then there are just as many arguments that free trade benefits the economy of a country than the opposite.

I also find your argument that market forces can not be applied to engineer's salaries in terms of supply & demand as being superficial and dismissive. Ask anyone who has tried to hire an analog engineer if market conditions haven't affected their compensation demands.

This is a global business, our customers are leveraging the dynamics of the global economy. Companies want to hire the best engineers wherever they may be, any attempt to organize workers to try and stop this phenomenon is going to divert energy away from participating in these dynamics and having a successful business. The young engineers coming out of schools today are in general comfortable with the global nature of the economy and most of them embrace it as being the norm. The key for us is to generate the same drive and level of skill as engineers in other parts of the world exhibit.

There are plenty of exciting technological and market developments in our industry today, I feel your magazine would be much better served in focusing on that than amateur dabbling in politics.

- Anonymous


To answer your overly simplified question: "Well, it depends on the union." Some unions have engineers and other such people as members, even those with established careers. Other unions are best left somewhere else -- dropouts do not always make the best union people. Like all legal associations, you have to read the fine print and learn about the culture before making any decisions.

- john


I must disagree with some of your comments regarding salaries. You say that the law of supply and demand works only in an ideal system. It is my belief that it is working with salaries today. (Just like the law of gravity, it cannot be circumvented!)

As you mention, companies look to offshoring and to hiring H1-Bs instead of raising salaries. This is the law of supply and demand in action: A greater supply of engineers reduces overall salaries (market price).

- Wendell Smith


Your article on "Unionization" was directly on target. I have been following this debate for 35+ years now. You remember, I'm sure, Irwin Feerst's efforts in this direction a while back. IEEE-USA is an attempt to protect the professional interest of the US members of IEEE, but as a long-time IEEE volunteer I can tell you that there are a lot of people in IEEE, both onshore and off, who would like to see IEEE-USA eliminated or severely constrained. Occasionally they succeed in hampering its efforts.

Then there are the various state registration laws. In theory the PEs could form a professional lobbying force. However, the effectiveness of this is undermined by the fact that they are fragmented by state unless they join NSPE. Moreover, especially in EE, it is further undermined by the industrial exemption. I have been told that the vast majority of CEs are PEs (~90%); about half of the MEs are registered, and less than 20% of EEs. (Based on my experience, I'd say a lot less than 20%). And finally, at least locally, the state PE boards and PE organizations seem to be dominated by members from academia and executives from the consulting engineering firms who want to simultaneously raise the price for engineering services while keeping engineering salaries low.

I think the major problem, however, is our engineering mentality and our culture. Like you, I am philosophically not fond of the idea of a union, especially one in which membership is essentially required. (How many physicians are not AMA members, or how many lawyers are not ABA members). However, I also recognize that without some sort of professional organization to which almost all engineers belong, we cannot raise the level of engineering as a profession. Physicians and lawyers can essentially control their professions, determine their salaries and working conditions, and so forth. Engineers cannot.

A friend of mine pointed out a big part of the problem long ago. He said, "Engineers will put up with a lot. You can pay them much less than they're worth, deny them credit for their accomplishments, reward other people for what they do, and generally dump on them as much as you want as long as you give them interesting work to do. The only thing you can't do is screw with their engineering; then they get really mad." A lot of us think the work is more important than out reward for what we do. Until this changes, the situation will remain the same.

I could go on about this, but I've taken up enough of your time already. Thanks for your columns and keep up the good fight.

- Francis Grosz


To give a short reply, as a 27 year old computer engineer, with a recent (13 months) old PhD, I'd say I'm all for unionization. Not just for salaries, or job security, but the real reason to have a union - safety. With RSI on the rise, long working hours taking their toll on our families, health, and stress levels, engineering isn't a fun profession, or even a tolerable one, in many cases. Engineers asked to work 100+ hours per week for 3-4 weeks per year, just to meet deadline after deadline, at the cost of their health and sanity.

Sure, asbestos mining was more dangerous, and directly harming to one's health. Same with truckers forced to drive 20+ hour shifts. At the end of the day, my young (and possibly uninformed!) opinion is that while unions have their negatives (many of them!), the best reason to have one isn't money, but safety, and I personally am afraid of my job. Already having been through 2 years of therapy for my wrists, and going on 6 years for my back problems, at 27, I worry I'll be put out to pasture by 40 - or have had at least one heart attack. Engineers around me fall like flies with chronic problems, eventually having to change professions or retire early to deal with the rigors of sitting in a chair 10+ hours per day.

So yes, I'd join a union. I'd grow to despise it, when, like the corporations it's designed to fight, it's 'mission' is corrupted to instead fight for unreasonably high salaries, and ever-greater concessions from industry, when really, it should get the fight done once, and well, and disband, only to reform 15 years later for the same purposes again. The concept of a full-time staff at a union means it needs a full-time mission - and if it's doing its job, it shouldn't need to be full-time. Still, I'd love to get overtime for any time worked over 40 hours per week. Just so that my manager would have to clock it, and be aware of it, and get some negative tick on his sheet for 'excessive use of overtime'. I'd love to have better disability benefits, and mandatory breaks. But it isn't gonna happen unless we unionize.

- Dr. Greg Link


I enjoyed your article. I too am ambiguous about unions. However, I believe that a union that properly represents its members would be a valuable voice in our democratic process. It is a fact that individuals are not heard by government as well as large organizations. I have been angered when manufacturers demand more H-1B visas from congress with little opposition from IEEE or anybody else. Why are we singled out among all professions? (Please bring in foreign CEOs!) I do not believe that confrontation is usually the best tactic. For example in this case, offering educational packages to engineers that do not qualify for available positions is a good compromise. Even the amount of continuing education support for employed engineers is dropping. I think a contribution to an education fund for every H-1B worker hired is a good solution. Without a union, solutions like this will never be negotiated.

Any organization requires vigilant oversight by its membership. The fact that unions have often been un-productive in the past is not a reason to ban their existence entirely. No organization would withstand this requirement.

- Scott Amundson


I thought IEEE and ACM were supposed to be comparable to the ABA and AMA!

I have an established career now, but even when I was new to the profession and had nothing to stand on but 10 years of hobby electronics and programming and a university degree I would have scorned unionization.

I don't think giving IEEE and ACM "teeth" so as to limit practice of electronics/firmware/software engineering would work either. It is too easy to find "kids" who are adequately skilled so as to make a reasonable product for many companies (who want to be quick to market and don't mind the lower quality). I suspect further wage depression would result, for these guys would be relegated to "technician" status (appropriately for many of them) while having only a very limited number of senior "professionals" who make a decent salary to supervise them. It would be the equivalent of the legal assistants who work for the lawyer (and know the law just as well), the hygienist who works for the dentist (and _can_ do everything the dentist can do, but not legally), or the LPN who works under the RN who today is just as qualified (and liable) as the MD she works under.

I think the cure would be worse than the disease. Should giving teeth to IEEE/ACM be done, it would also foster the offshoring attitude within this country because the companies would simply shift work overseas more quickly. It's not like a factory job, where the company has a large capital investment in heavy equipment. Our capital investment is much lighter - for instance, for under $100K I have at my home a complete electronics/firmware development capability that in many (not all) ways exceeds the quality of tools that my employer gives me to use. The tools are sufficient for a 2-3 man engineering team to produce quite a variety of high-end stuff.

I saw a posting for a "Senior Power Supply Engineer" - MSEE with 3 years or BSEE with 10 years experience. Salary: $61,000. Everybody who sees it knows the real reason - they want to get more cheap imported labor. Just running a COLA on my first real job out of college 20+ years ago would put me there. Do they really expect to find an MSEE willing to work for that salary in northern NJ?

The problem is the same root of all evil about which Christ warned us - the love of money. Making a reasonable profit isn't enough; they have to devour everybody else as well.

- Andy


I would rather see professional standards like the accounting CPA. People often hire a CPA to do things that do not legally require a CPA license. They know that requirements are strict enough that someone with a CPA is an expert in accounting.

I would like to see the PE license expanded in a similar way. There would have to be many more tests so that PEs could get certified in multiple specialties under their branch of engineering. If the testing is rigorous and practical enough, employers would start demanding it and paying for it.

- Charles Gervasi


Unionizations of engineers will almost certainly drive more engineering to off-shore locations. This result is so obvious that I marvel at the notion that the idea has gained any traction.

- Douglas Schmidt


I just read your editorial in the 9/16 Embedded.com newsletter regarding unionization, and have several thoughts to share.

I have been working in the industry for almost 38 years now. I have worked for exactly 2 companies in that time, both of them in your neck of the woods, the Baltimore/Columbia area. I have survived more layoffs and restructurings than I care to count. If I added up all the people who were RIF'd over the years, the total laid off over the years would probably exceed our entire current 9,000 person local workforce. I have experienced reductions in benefits (vacation take-back); pension plan restructurings (we now have a cash-balance plan, the defined benefit plan being terminated several years ago), and increases in contributions for benefits (when I first started working back in 1968, the company paid 100% for all medical insurance). The company went to an all-merit plan for raises back in 1988.

I have been anti-union for most of my career, feeling that they had become organizations dedicated to protecting featherbedding and throwing up impediments to companies' ability to innovate. However, lately I have come to feel that, in order to protect their own interests, engineers are going to have to unionize or form some other type of organization that represents their interests. The IEEE just doesn't fulfill that role.

Do you remember the strike/walkout by engineers (the Society of Professional Engineers Employees in Aerospace) at Boeing back in 2000? They were able to obtain pay raises and no cutback in benefits by preventing Boeing from delivering airplanes. Boeing's stock started to slide and management was forced to deal with the engineers. That's the kind of organization that's needed.

While outsourcing has not been an issue where I work as all of our work is for the DOD, I agree with your statement that in many companies engineers are considered fungible commodities rather than essential strategic parts of a long-term plan. Several years ago, we were letting people go even as we were throwing college fairs to entice new graduates. While the company talks a good story about valuing its employees, it continues to squeeze older workers knowing that most of them are not going to leave and will just suck it up.

Because of disenchantment with the profession, I have discouraged my children from pursuing careers in engineering. Three of them have taken my advice (one lawyer and one surgeon out of those 3). One of them, against my recommendation, obtained his CS degree and is working for a company in Columbia that provides secured Linux products to industry and the government. I think he would be better off as a plumber.

- Steve Shimko


First off, let me apologize for posting on this thread a second time. That being said, I am impressed with the responses to this topic, both sides raise good points and issues.

I fully understand Steve Shimko reluctance to recommend this profession to anyone; I have done the same with my two sons and many other aspiring Engineers. And why not, here in California the highest salary anyone working in software can expect is lower than the lowest salary anyone working in a law office can expect!

We have a labor law that specifically excludes Software Engineers from overtime pay! (Surprised the heck out of me too, but I researched it with an independent lawyer and it is the case!).

So to summarize the issues that both sides have brought up about collective representation:

Con

--Would push business to move R&D offshore faster

--Unions can't be trusted because they are all alike and only exist to make the union management rich.

--I don't like other Engineers enough to belong to a "club" with them! (paraphrased)

--We have already lost, this is way too late as half of the business has already left (Note: this was mine!)

--We could have profession accreditation for individual Engineers

Pro

--The perception that collectively we have more strength than as individuals

--We could raise the overall "respectability" of our craft as a profession

--We could raise the remuneration level and therefore attract more new Engineers to the profession

--Assist with health issues facing Engineers

--Representation is necessary

--We could have profession accreditation for individual Engineers

A couple of things to point out:

1. Both lists have "profession accreditation" listed; even discussing this in this forum is counter productive. This issue is not about quality (I keep repeating this) it is about money and where the money goes.

2.) The only person who was so cowardly as to not give their name (i.e. " - Anonymous") spoke like a salesman, (i.e. " This is a global business, our customers are leveraging the dynamics of the global economy") not an engineer, so I ignored his ramblings about making better Engineers locally. It's not about quality (that we already pursue), it's about money!

So the only solution to these two lists of issues is a Engineering profession lobbying organization (since we don't trust unions/IEEE/ACM) to "buy" (ehhh.. I mean "influence") members of congress to maintain certain industries where ONLY American citizens can be used for R&D. Sound crazy?? Why? We already have Engineer specific legislation; its just that currently it is all negative to our profession. We could use the NRA as a model.

I would think a good starting point would be Medical, Aerospace and Defense industries.

The justification would rightly be that we as a nation can't tolerate poor quality products in these areas, references to recent (and future) China adulteration issues could be used to our advantage. Also outsourcing our countries defense to other nations is fraught with issues, not the least of which could be sabotaged weapon systems (this has already happened, research into the early conflict between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union) and sales of similar or superior systems to wealthy enemies (which we seem to have an abundance of these days).

We need someone we all trust, someone who doesn't want the job

Jack how about using your visibility and reputation to promote a solution?? Or at least a forum where this can be discussed further?

- Chris Gates


One of the most interesting things was perhaps your observation of the negative bubble in CS and EE programs at the universities. We see the same in Europe. In some countries, Sweden for instance, EE students are much more likely to be fluent in Mandarin than Swedish. Chocking? Perhaps to some. Important? Certainly not when seen in an international perspective. Nevertheless the trend is the same whether in the US, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and probably most other countries in the Western world.

So what about H1-B visas, where do they play into this? Out of necessity, I think. I have not really followed the discussion in the U.S. that close in recent years, even though I have considered working here. These days it is not so interesting. The salaries may be higher but the conditions surrounding the H1-B visas are not that attractive.

Europe too, is considering a system similar to the H1-B system. The European Commission recently proposed what they called an "EC blue card" to workers. 20 million blue cards will be issued to cope with the aging population. Will they succeed? I do not know -probably not. Germany tried a similar system in the late 1990s and it failed miserably. So why did the German experiment fail? Due to the fact that people from India tend to speak English and not German? Perhaps. My guess is that the German H1-B system failed due to a combination of reasons: A complicated society with a number of regulations for everything ranging from housing to working hours. Just to give some perspective: It seems easier to rent an apartment in Boston (I have been here for less than 2 days, than to find an apartment in Malm where I have lived the last 10 years) Add to this the language barrier. But What about unions, do they factor in to this failure?

My belief is "yes". I personally believe that unions are a disaster. Unionizing engineers means that engineers are reduced to workers. Deprive us of our academic skills and professionalism and what will we be left with, sex appeal? Don't think so....

Another effect of unions are the effective suppression of salaries. In Sweden (where I currently work) salary statistics are frequently used by employers to determine salaries for any engineer. It does not matter if you just graduated or have been working for 10 years time. You are paid according to the going rate. I know, because I use the same method as it is dictated by higher management. So what can an engineer do to obtain a higher salary? Not much but except leave the country, which we do, although it is getting slightly more difficult these days, and not all are in a position to be able to go either. So considering the fact that Scandinavia has strong unions, a horrible climate it is maybe not so strange that the primary hobby in Scandinavia seems to be alcoholism. Considering that Scandinavian countries have some of the highest income taxes in the world makes me wonder why our primary hobby is not suicide.

For me, I do not think there is much to do. I recently moved into management and now focus more on learning business behind the technology. A fifth language in the form of mandarin will be added to the CV as well. So my advice to EEs in the western world: Do not worry too much. We are smart people; we can adjust either by learning new skills. Let that be languages, foreign cultures or new management techniques. Maybe it is more challenging these days that than 20 years ago. So what? Who said it was going to be easy? Developing a career takes time and to me that is the challenge of a life time.

- Johan Jorgensen

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