Unionization - Embedded.com


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 . His website is .

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

– Steve Tilghman

Philosophy aside, I believe that Unions are only effective tothe extent that they have a monopoly on labour. In the olddays you could run the scabs out of town, but the only wayto create that monopoly today would be to stop the import ofgoods created with foreign (non-monopoly) labour. I'm notsure that is likely, but if it happened then we probably wouldn'tneed a union to improve the working conditions of engineers.

– Mark Dresser

Unionization in the US will not help engineering, it will simplyforce more jobs offshore. Unionization of the offshorecompanies and employees would go further to raising salarieshere.

– Scott Nowell

With the exception of certain publications in England it is interestingthat you are the only industry pundit talking aboutthis issue.

I am one of those “rabid emailers” who is passionate about thisproblem, I know I am one because most of my email goes unansweredand unpublished. American magazines still think theywill have a market to sell their magazines in India and China,so they remain “politically correct” and would never actas a firebrand for this issue, and even have a hard timepublishing American reader's emails like this one.

Why does the AMA and the ABA have such incredible control oftheir industry? The answer is that they didn't wait until almosthalf of all their business was already going outside thecountry. (per Embedded's latest survey). It is much easierto 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 wouldjust accelerate the movement to offshore development. Thetime to do this was 20 to 30 years ago, but I too thoughtit was a bad idea back then. We have already lost the battle.

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

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

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

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

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

-Accountants think anyone with a title can do the job, no matterwhere 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 newproducts? Or because they are the 1st and 2nd most populousnations who care little for human rights, and the majorityof the populous lives on less than 50 cents a day?

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

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

So I doubt few of us would argue about these points, but assumingthat they are all correct what leverage would a union useagainst American Business and the Government they controlvia lobbies?

Oh and one another thing, we as Software Engineers have to stopobsessing about the tools and methods we use and focus moreon 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 theycan negotiate an optimum employment package with management,they are sorely mistaken. While unions have their undeniabledisadvantages, the benefits outweigh their drawbacks. MyFather was a member of the Engineers & Scientists Guild atRCA from the '40s, and I was a member at Lockheed in the '60s. As is true in life, an individual may not agree 100% withthe goals of union management, but collectively all workersbenefit over the long term. Even as a Vice-President, I wouldhave 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 engineeringprofession 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 ofoutsourcing which while beneficial to business in the short term has a huge negative impact on keeping our technological edge not tomention removing middle-class wage earners into the unemployment ranks or into the lower paying service industry. A union or centralizedgroup promoting engineering interests might also be able to revive the electronics hobby which sadly has disappeared as a source ofpotential engineers. A union could also be used to better match employers with engineers looking for work. These are perhapsnon-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 neededhuge reforms, unions were necessary to protect a worker's rights. As politically correct our nation has been evolving into, workers havemore rights/protection than the good ole days when industries had more room to exploit the average worker. I do not think unionizationwould help our situations as engineers, because we are not facing exactly the same issues as previous generations did. It isn't that weare not getting paid enough or that we are not getting any benefits, it is strictly a fact that previous administrations of governmenthave basically opened the floodgates to corporations to outsource work to foreign nations that can provide the service cheaper. I don'tthink 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 organizationof workers, take the automotive industry. The auto workers unions werewinning because the execs did not have an immediate solution to theirlabor issues. Unions got greedy and in time the average worker gotreplaced by robotic assembly lines.

Today, corporations have an immediate answer to reducing theirengineering costs (international outsourcing). What can the union do butspeed the demise of the American working engineer by aggravating analready touchy situation.

– Dale Arnold

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

Interesting, but I believe misplaced. And potentiallydangerous.

The robber barons of the 19th century enjoyed a huge lack ofmarket and governmental legislation. They freely engaged incartels. They built railways that nobody needed so theycould build more bridges and sell more steel and also sellthe bonds for these railways to banks in Europe. They evencolluded with some of those banks. They engaged in insidertrading. Carnegie was largely unsuccessful in growing hisbusiness outside of the US. This could either have led tohis protectionist stance or been in part a result of it.

Their workers were forced to work 12 hour days with wagecontracts supposedly linked to the price of their commodity.Many of them were unskilled and labor was abundant. Theyalso worked in dangerous environments, people died in steelmills and mines.

We can hardly draw parallels between this and the rarifiedatmosphere of working in technology and electronicscompanies.

Instead your arguments for unionization sound to me like anargument for protectionism and wage control and that you areusing this platform to project a political position.Targeting the visa question and therefore foreign workers isuncomfortable to say the least. If you want to provoke adebate on free trade and how the economy of the US and thequality of life of US born engineers can best be served thenthere are just as many arguments that free trade benefitsthe economy of a country than the opposite.

I also find your argument that market forces can not beapplied to engineer's salaries in terms of supply & demandas being superficial and dismissive. Ask anyone who hastried to hire an analog engineer if market conditionshaven't affected their compensation demands.

This is a global business, our customers are leveraging thedynamics of the global economy. Companies want to hire thebest engineers wherever they may be, any attempt to organizeworkers to try and stop this phenomenon is going to divertenergy away from participating in these dynamics and havinga successful business. The young engineers coming out ofschools today are in general comfortable with the globalnature of the economy and most of them embrace it as beingthe norm. The key for us is to generate the same drive andlevel of skill as engineers in other parts of the worldexhibit.

There are plenty of exciting technological and marketdevelopments in our industry today, I feel your magazinewould be much better served in focusing on that than amateurdabbling 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. Itis 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 inaction: A greater supply of engineers reduces overall salaries (market price).

– Wendell Smith

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

Then there are the various state registration laws. In theory the PEscould form a professional lobbying force. However, the effectiveness ofthis is undermined by the fact that they are fragmented by state unless theyjoin NSPE. Moreover, especially in EE, it is further undermined by theindustrial exemption. I have been told that the vast majority of CEs arePEs (~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, atleast locally, the state PE boards and PE organizations seem to be dominatedby members from academia and executives from the consulting engineeringfirms who want to simultaneously raise the price for engineering serviceswhile keeping engineering salaries low.

I think the major problem, however, is our engineering mentality andour culture. Like you, I am philosophically not fond of the idea of aunion, especially one in which membership is essentially required. (Howmany physicians are not AMA members, or how many lawyers are not ABAmembers). However, I also recognize that without some sort of professionalorganization to which almost all engineers belong, we cannot raise the levelof engineering as a profession. Physicians and lawyers can essentiallycontrol 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. Hesaid, “Engineers will put up with a lot. You can pay them much less thanthey're worth, deny them credit for their accomplishments, reward otherpeople for what they do, and generally dump on them as much as you want aslong as you give them interesting work to do. The only thing you can't dois screw with their engineering; then they get really mad.” A lot of usthink the work is more important than out reward for what we do. Until thischanges, the situation will remain the same.

I could go on about this, but I've taken up enough of your timealready. 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 (13months) old PhD, I'd say I'm all for unionization. Not just for salaries, orjob security, but the real reason to have a union – safety. With RSI on therise, long working hours taking their toll on our families, health, andstress 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 peryear, just to meet deadline after deadline, at the cost of their health andsanity.

Sure, asbestos mining was more dangerous, and directly harming to one'shealth. Same with truckers forced to drive 20+ hour shifts. At the end ofthe day, my young (and possibly uninformed!) opinion is that while unionshave their negatives (many of them!), the best reason to have one isn'tmoney, but safety, and I personally am afraid of my job. Already having beenthrough 2 years of therapy for my wrists, and going on 6 years for my backproblems, at 27, I worry I'll be put out to pasture by 40 – or have had atleast one heart attack. Engineers around me fall like flies with chronicproblems, eventually having to change professions or retire early to dealwith 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 thecorporations it's designed to fight, it's 'mission' is corrupted to insteadfight for unreasonably high salaries, and ever-greater concessions fromindustry, when really, it should get the fight done once, and well, anddisband, only to reform 15 years later for the same purposes again. Theconcept 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'dlove to get overtime for any time worked over 40 hours per week. Just sothat my manager would have to clock it, and be aware of it, and get somenegative tick on his sheet for 'excessive use of overtime'. I'd love to havebetter disability benefits, and mandatory breaks. But it isn't gonna happenunless we unionize.

– Dr. Greg Link

I enjoyed your article. I too am ambiguous about unions. However, Ibelieve that a union that properly represents its members would be avaluable voice in our democratic process. It is a fact that individualsare not heard by government as well as large organizations. I have beenangered when manufacturers demand more H-1B visas from congress withlittle opposition from IEEE or anybody else. Why are we singled outamong all professions? (Please bring in foreign CEOs!) I do notbelieve that confrontation is usually the best tactic. For example inthis case, offering educational packages to engineers that do notqualify for available positions is a good compromise. Even the amountof continuing education support for employed engineers is dropping. Ithink a contribution to an education fund for every H-1B worker hired isa good solution. Without a union, solutions like this will never benegotiated.

Any organization requires vigilant oversight by its membership. Thefact that unions have often been un-productive in the past is not areason to ban their existence entirely. No organization would withstandthis requirement.

– Scott Amundson

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

I have an established career now, but even when I was new tothe profession and had nothing to stand on but 10 years ofhobby electronicsand programming and a university degree I would have scornedunionization.

I don't think giving IEEE and ACM “teeth” so as to limitpractice of electronics/firmware/software engineering wouldwork either. It istoo easy to find “kids” who are adequately skilled so as tomake a reasonable product for many companies (who want to bequick to marketand don't mind the lower quality). I suspect further wagedepression would result, for these guys would be relegatedto “technician”status (appropriately for many of them) while having only avery limited number of senior “professionals” who make adecent salary tosupervise them. It would be the equivalent of the legalassistants who work for the lawyer (and know the law just aswell), the hygienistwho works for the dentist (and _can_ do everything thedentist can do, but not legally), or the LPN who works underthe RN who today isjust as qualified (and liable) as the MD she works under.

I think the cure would be worse than the disease. Shouldgiving teeth to IEEE/ACM be done, it would also foster theoffshoring attitudewithin this country because the companies would simply shiftwork overseas more quickly. It's not like a factory job,where the companyhas a large capital investment in heavy equipment. Ourcapital investment is much lighter – for instance, for under$100K I have at myhome a complete electronics/firmware development capabilitythat in many (not all) ways exceeds the quality of toolsthat my employergives me to use. The tools are sufficient for a 2-3 manengineering team to produce quite avariety of high-end stuff.

I saw a posting for a “Senior PowerSupply Engineer” – MSEE with 3 years or BSEE with 10 yearsexperience. Salary:$61,000. Everybody who sees it knows the real reason – theywant to get more cheap imported labor. Just running a COLAon my first realjob out of college 20+ years ago would put me there. Dothey really expect to find an MSEE willing to work for thatsalary in northernNJ?

The problem is the same root of all evil about which Christwarned us – the love of money. Making a reasonable profitisn't enough; theyhave 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 CPAlicense. They know that requirements are strict enough that someonewith a CPA is an expert in accounting.

I would like to see the PE license expanded in a similar way. Therewould have to be many more tests so that PEs could get certified inmultiple specialties under their branch of engineering. If the testingis rigorous and practical enough, employers would start demanding it andpaying 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:


–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


–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.

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