The image of work in the IT industry is dominated by the clever nerd lacking social skills and the highly paid consultant.
Yet recent months have seen Unite members in Fujitsu staging the first ever national strikes in IT, over jobs, pay and pensions. A group of Unite members in Hewlett-Packard (HP) have won union recognition and, after a one-day strike, a 2.5 percent pay rise. PCS members in HP also struck over pay and jobs. Union organisation has now increased across IT.
Many organisations now outsource IT work. Mergers mean services are dominated by a few multinationals, like BT, HP, Capita, IBM, Fujitsu, Cap Gemini, Accenture, CSC, Atos Origin and Steria.
As the industry has matured there are fewer products and services built specifically by one company or for just one customer. Competition is based more on price than functionality. Likewise, the job skills in the industry are increasingly standardised. Many IT workers are periodically transferred between companies as part of outsourcing contracts - staff are bought and sold like equipment and orders.
Greater price competition leads to relentless cost-cutting drives and working staff harder for less pay and benefits. Standardisation of skills is reducing workers' ability to resist this individually. As jobs become less individual, less creative, less rewarding and increasingly routine, supervision intensifies. Clocking in and out of work was scrapped decades ago, but many now have to complete "timesheets" to account for what they've been doing. Failure to submit timesheets leads to disciplinary action. Many mobile engineers have tracking devices fitted in their cars and call centre staff are often monitored by the second. Pressure on productivity and cost often leads to bullying.
Most companies use individual performance appraisals, sometimes with "forced distribution", where managers have to award the worst scores to fixed percentages of staff no matter how well they are really doing or whether problems are genuinely their fault. Employers try to "manage out of the business" those who score badly, through so-called "performance improvement plans", disciplinary measures and hounding people until they quit.
Many fear their jobs will be moved to lower-wage countries, so an increasing number work on customer sites which can't be offshored. Many spend long periods working far from home, encouraging long working hours.
As part of the job cuts at Fujitsu, the company is trying to replace engineers who travel to work with self-employed workers engaged through agencies on far lower pay. Agencies will be keen to hire redundant engineers. This is similar to employment widely used in construction. Many IT staff work on a series of projects, competing in internal job markets for their next assignment. Employees have a continuity of employment between projects, offering some employment rights and a degree of job security. If the use of agencies and self-employment spreads it would be disastrous.
These changes are giving staff a lot to be angry about. Attacks on the pensions of long-serving staff are shattering the trust many placed in employers.
Industrial changes are giving IT workers a lot of potential power. Few organisations can function without IT infrastructure - networks, databases, web sites, data storage, backups, support, etc. Much of this infrastructure is provided by the main IT companies.
To turn potential power into real power requires two extra ingredients. Firstly, you have to be conscious of your potential power - to understand that your employer and its customers depend on you. Secondly, you need collective organisation to use that power.
Union membership and organisation are growing rapidly and IT workers are not weighed down by decades of union retreat and defeat. The absence of a tradition of union organisation presents problems, but also means workers can try to adopt the most effective ways of organising.
There are now several examples where IT workers have organised successful collective action. If we make these examples better known, and achieve some more, we can have strong unions and a decent place to work, rather than becoming the latest victims of the race to the bottom.
Ian Allinson is chair of the Unite Fujitsu Combined Committee