With the growth in outsourcing, more IT employees are turning to unions for support, but IT directors may find they are a useful asset rather than an intransigent foe.
The technology sector has never been a hotbed of union activism, but with strike action looming at the Bank of Ireland over its decision to outsource its IT and offshore outsourcing set to transform the UK's IT industry, unions have started to flex their muscles.
In the past, the level of union membership within the IT industry has been low, partly due to the high salaries and fluid job market in the sector. However, unions must also shoulder some of the blame for failing to sell the benefits of membership to such a critical part of the UK workforce.
"There are about one million IT professionals in the UK, and between 5% and 10% are union members," said Peter Skyte, national secretary at trade union Amicus, which includes the IT Professional Association, a body that represents employees working in IT departments and for IT suppliers. "In IT departments the number of union members can vary from a very low number to half the workforce."
However, many IT managers can barely stifle a yawn when asked about unions.
"It is an issue I have never encountered," said David Rippon, chairman of the British Computer Society's Elite group of IT directors and former IT director of Land Securities.
"It is a complete non-issue," said Peter Mansbridge, head of IT at the Chloride Group. "I have never had any unionised people in any organisation I have run."
Most IT union members work in banking and the public sector, where 70% of staff are union members.
Most IT directors in the public sector are familiar with dealing with unionised IT departments, and quite a few are union members themselves.
Kate Mountain, chief executive of local authority IT managers association Socitm, was a member of Unison when she was head of IT at Liverpool Council, but she did not go to union meetings because she felt her presence would inhibit discussions.
Some private sector IT chiefs are also union members. "I was on a professional IT committee when someone introduced themselves as 'IT director of a plc and a union member'," said Skyte. "It surprised me because some companies are pretty anti-union and it can be hard to admit to belonging to a union."
Whatever their reasons for joining a union, senior people in IT can find membership has practical benefits, said Skyte. "Someone appointed to a senior position on £80,000 contacted me as a union member to say he was worried about a clause on working hours in his contract," he said. "It was a standard issue about contractual advice."
Long-time Amicus member Philip Virgo, now strategic adviser to the Institute for the Management of Information Systems, has seen benefits both in respect to his own career and his ability to manage IT professionals.
"I got more advice as a manager from my union than from my personnel department," he said. "The union had very practical advice on how to defuse situations as painlessly as possible. You should use the union as one of your consulting mechanisms."
Virgo also pointed out that collective negotiation can be a lot simpler for departmental managers, especially if the workforce is too large to handle individually.
Socitm president Fahri Zihni, head of IT at Wolverhampton Council, said, "It is useful to have a body with which we can negotiate and it gives us people to talk to."
But can the unions survive the prolonged economic downturn?
"Significantly for IT professionals, our membership is growing by 20% to 25% every year - it is the fastest growing sector," said Skyte. "About one third of new members join via our website.
"People join a trade union in 2003 for the same reason they joined 100 years ago - to improve their terms and conditions, to safeguard their jobs and to protect themselves at work. That has not changed."
As the UK IT sector struggles with the economic downturn, the campaigning issues of IT unions - job security, pay, skills and pensions - have become more relevant for staff and employers. "Dealing with an angry union can have a cost factor," said Virgo.
Skyte said unions can act as a bridge between the workforce and management, and this is encouraged by the changing attitudes of major suppliers such as EDS and CSC, where long-term relationships with unions have been forged in the wake of outsourcing contracts.
"The more deals they do, the more they realise that rather than seeing us as a problem, they can work with us," said Skyte.
"You should view the union as a partner and be determined to be open," said Richard Sykes, chairman of outsourcing consultancy Morgan Chambers. "You should not be defensive."
However, opinions vary about how regularly IT management should meet with union leaders. Some experts say once a month, while others say the two sides should meet only when an important issue arises.
But the real bogeyman for the IT industry is offshore outsourcing, which is set to grow dramatically. The trend for outsourcing, both in the UK and offshore, has politicised many deals and may represent the future of IT.
"We are not going to stand by while skills and jobs move out of the UK with nothing to replace them," said Skyte. "We want companies to make a reality of their rhetoric that employees are their greatest assets, instead of regarding them as expendable when the going gets rough.
"We are keen to work with companies and IT directors where there should be a win-win situation, because we are not in different camps. Companies should stop behaving like dinosaurs and see unions as an asset."
Like it or not, IT management can no longer afford to ignore the unions.
What can unions do for IT bosses?
- Provide a convenient, single point of contact with the workforce, funded by employees
- Act as a source of experienced advice and consultation, both personally and for workforce issues
- Smooth the transfer of staff in outsourcing deals, using the union's experience in foreseeing and solving problems
- Help lobby government to ensure the UK's national IT skills base remains current, so lower-value jobs can be outsourced offshore without undermining UK staff.