May 1, 2011

Unionized IT and SOA

Labor unions are rarely found in IT organizations.  It’s not unheard of, but generally high pay rates and frequent job mobility have made labor or trade unions appear to be of limited benefit to the employee – and therefore rejected.

In general labor unions impose rules on the management that require employees with the greatest seniority (most time at the company) be promoted to more senior positions as they open up.  And they require new employees to be brought in at the most junior level.

IT, with frequently changing technologies, requires bringing in subject matter experts and promoting those demonstrating top technical skills to technical leadership positions.

Recently I’ve been doing some consulting on a large scale IT project, which involves quite a bit of Service Oriented Architecture and involves a unionized IT department.  They’re struggling both with the technical aspects of a major technology and architectural approach change and with the union job impacts of such.

In particular, like the classical unionized worker, much of IT is certain that it’s doing it’s job function in “the right way”.  It knows this because it’s the documented union approved procedure, and therefore the “right” one.

Similarly because of this the existing environment has been extremely slow to adopt new technology or new methods, as each such change requires negotiations with the union.  This has led to much of the IT operations literally remaining as green screen mainframe applications written in a standard 2nd generation programming language.

As an interesting aside, I heard that one of the union contract terms for pay includes a multiplier based on the CPU (mips) capacity of the mainframe.  (I guess the assumption would be if the “computer” is doing more then either the workers are doing more or their work is more valuable.)  This has literally led to increased computing power being delayed due to the impact on labor costs (and therefore maintaining slower application response time across the whole work force).

It’s hard to see how one can operate within union work rules and have an agile and integrated IT environment.  Perhaps there are agile unions that could make such a thing possible, but traditional union patterns do not seem compatible with agile IT.