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Is it time for a knowledge workers' union?

Published February 25. 2012 09:01AM


Like so many men in hard coal country, my dad was a United Mine Worker. Before him, my grandpappy was Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. During the 1950s and 1960s, one American worker out of three belonged to a labor union. No matter what your feelings about organized labor, the AFL-CIO was why men and women on the assembly lines of Detroit and Cleveland and Pittsburgh made it into the middle class. Good pay, generous health and pension plans, and job security weren't gifts from the Fords and Carnegies and Rockefellers of America. They were the hard-won trophies of organizing and collective bargaining strikes.

When first Japan, then China, and now South and Southeast Asia entered the global contest for manufacturing jobs, not even the most powerful labor unions could keep the multinational companies from closing plants and exporting those jobs overseas. But don't worry, we told our younger generations. You'll all go to college. You'll have the "brain" jobs. Let the Asians and Mexicans and South Americans have the "brawn" jobs.

The trouble is that the Chinese now have more kids in college than we do. Indian IT professionals, often educated at U.S. universities, are moving back home. For half the salary they'd make in America they can live twice as well in South India's answer to Silicon Valley.

American lawyers and accountants are no safer than their high-tech counterparts. Some East Coast law and CPA firms ship files off to offices in India and elsewhere on the other side of the globe. When the American law and accounting partners turn off the lights and go home for the evening, young attorneys and accountants half a world away are waking up and checking their email accounts for the work they'll be doing. Their work products will be waiting in the U.S. firms' email bins, when those partners boot up the next morning back in Jersey or New York.

The sad fact is that a good education no longer guarantees a high-paying position in America. Often, the 21st century version of the 20th century assembly line is a room full of cubicles equipped with computers.

Unions have fallen out of fashion. Only 6.9 percent of the private-sector workforce is organized today. To some extent, unions got what they deserved. John Mitchell of my dad's UMW called a nationwide strike in the midst of WWII. Jimmy Hoffa drove his Teamsters down the road to perdition. The Longshoremen were riddled with Reds. In other words, the big unions are no more immune to greed and megalomania than are the big banks and corporations.

Just the same, if the challenges facing the younger generation resemble those that faced their grandfathers, then maybe the solution is also similar: an International Knowledge Workers Union.


Technology is an amazing blessing, and a complex curse. Today many jobs can be accomplished from anywhere in the world, as long as there's an Internet connection nearby, and more and more employees are working from home part- or full-time. It's often more convenient for the employer and the employee, and almost always cheaper.

On the other hand, working remotely has the effect of turning real people into abstract concepts. I'm sure I'm not the first person to have ever gotten a bit ill tempered while talking on the phone to an IT worker about the problems I'm having with my Dell laptop - because let's face it, it's a lot easier to yell at some guy in India, whom you've never met before, over the phone than it is to yell at someone in person. It's difficult to feel a human connection with a distant, disembodied voice, and so we often treat those voices like machines rather than people.

Add to that the proliferation of social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, where people routinely gain thousands of "friends" without ever having a single meaningful interaction, and I think it's clear why any international union would be difficult to organize. Forming a group of people who have never met, whose members are no more than email addresses to one another, does not strike me as the most efficient path to camaraderie. How can we have our Norma Rae moment if we can barely even picture the people with whom we're supposed to be uniting?

Finally, because technology has made many jobs so mobile, those jobs simply can't be compared to more traditional forms of labor. A teachers' strike can be crippling to a community, but if a company's information technology workers (who happen to be working from China) go on strike, the infrastructure can be moved to different workers (living anywhere from India to Indianapolis) in no time at all. When employers have such flexibility, what leverage do the workers have?

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