2001 ASSLH conference – The geeks fight back: Class struggle in the information technology industry


Thomas Barnes



“We are living through the information revolution”, “Information technology has fundamentally changed the way we live our lives”. Today these claims are made in the popular media, by business and political leaders, and intellectuals.Information technology (IT) is said to be so important it has ushered in a “new economy” or “knowledge economy”.We are told not only is the information revolution happening, but it is good for society and should be embraced by all.This paper looks at one offshoot of this new consensus, the argument that IT has blurred (and is blurring) class divisions in society, focussing particularly on workers and work in the software development sector. It attempts to construct a more balanced, critical understanding of the so-called information revolution’s impact on workers in new “high technology” industries.

According to the above thesis, the “old economy”, dominated by the mass production of manufactured commodities and the use of Fordist and Taylorist production techniques, has irreversibly declined. In the old economy work was based on fragmented, repetitive tasks controlled by management. Workers’ control over the shopfloor and skills were degraded to the point that they had no choice other than organising collectively to improve their working conditions. As a result, mass unionism thrived in the old economy. Today, the application of new technology, especially IT, to the production process has revolutionised work organisation. Manufacturing has been supplanted by the service sector. Within the service sector, it is argued, IT has created a new layer of highly skilled professionals who have complete mastery over the labour process. They do not need to organise collectively in unions to protect and improve their working conditions. Today, it is argued, the growth of the IT labour market is a sign that the key social division is not ownership of the means of production, but ownership of “knowledge”.

The most widely publicised exposition of this argument in Australia can be found in Mark Latham’s Civilising Global Capital. Latham builds particularly on the work of Reich in describing work centred on the manipulation of “knowledge” as “knowledge work”, and workers in these new industries as “knowledge workers” or “symbolic- analysts”, of which IT workers are the most important example.4

But what if knowledge workers did organise in unions? What if they took industrial action? More particularly, what if this occurred in the IT industry, among the highly skilled workers Latham et al rely on to “prove” their anti-union prejudices? The bulk of this paper is devoted to just such an example, an industrial dispute in a unionised IT workplace. The case study is significant, not in the sense that it represents the state of collective organisation across the IT industry, but by the fact it is the first attempt by software developers in Australia to negotiate an enterprise agreement, and the first recorded strike by such workers. The case study is based on a series of interviews conducted with six former employees from the workplace, the union organiser in the dispute, and a representative from the employers’ association that aided management during the dispute. Management refused to be interviewed for the case study.

The paper starts with a broad overview of the literature that discusses the development of the IT industry in the last 30 years, and briefly outlines working conditions in the industry, before looking at the case study.

Before continuing, it is first important to note that the material produced by Reich, Latham, and others with similar arguments, is explicitly ideological and often devoid of serious supporting evidence. If this is the case, why then is it important to subject their work to critique? If their work is often of low academic standard, should we not dismiss it out of hand?

Unfortunately, for Latham in particular, uncritical analysis of these new sections of work provides a convenient theoretical foundation to dismiss unions as out of date and irrelevant to new generations of workers. Behind the talk of a paradigmatic shift to a new economy with new employment relations is a political agenda designed to shift social democracy away from its foundations. In this sense, the case study is important for two reasons: Because it is the first of its kind, and therefore deserves a place in the history of the labour movement, hopefully to improve our understanding of class struggle in new, expanding sections of the economy, and, more importantly, because these workers have been used as an ideological weapon to undermine the concept of unionism and the organic connections between the labour movement and social democracy. Any contributions that help develop a more critical understanding of the prospects for working conditions and collective organisation in the IT industry are useful for those of us who value collectivism and unionism as vital to the health of society and to progressive struggles for social change.

Literature Review

Much has been written on the relationship between new technology and work organisation. In turn, different theories of work organisation play a role in theories of class consciousness and organisation among workers. Reich, Latham et al present new technology, in this case IT, as only having positive effects on work organisation from the point of view of the worker. For workers in the IT industry itself, they conclude, these effects negate their class position. On the surface, the abundance of contractual relations,5 individualised remuneration and performance appraisal schemes6 and almost negligible unionisation7 support this argument.

Much has also been written that looks at the application of new technology to work more critically. Much of this literature is influenced by labour process theory. Braverman argued that new technology was used by managers to complement scientific management, and therefore accelerated the process of “proletarianisation” among new sections of workers.8 Although various aspects of Labor and Monopoly Capital have been subjected to critique,9 there is a lot of evidence which suggests IT has been used within the service sector to enhance management control, and deskill and disempower workers since the 1970s. Literature that deals with this topic discusses occupations as varied as data processing,10 insurance,11 retailing,12 retail banking,13 telecommunications,14 and call centres.15

Within the IT industry itself, there is very little literature that deals with developments in work organisation in the same critical manner.16 The impact of IT on the work environment of IT “users” has been extensively studied, but in-depth study of the various jobs associated with software development has been neglected.17

Having said this, the few critical works that do exist are useful. Two works from the late 1970s, Greenbaum’s In the Name of Efficiency, and Kraft’s Programmers and Managers, describe the development of data processing and computer programming through the prism of Braverman’s labour process theory. Greenbaum and Kraft describe the process in which software development had been transformed from an individualistic, highly autonomous job into a set of standardised tasks centrally controlled by management. The historical shift towards the standardisation of software production as computers became more important in the modern economy led to the deskilling of software developers and a decline in their professional status.18

However, more recent critical works generally argue that Greenbaum and Kraft present an overly simplistic, linear model that does not fit with changes in software development since the early 1980s. Friedman and Cornford’s history of software development is arguably the most thorough exposition of this argument, although it is rather dated.19 A similar argument is put in more recent works by Finch and, in more detail, by Fincham et al.20 Beirne, Ramsay and Panteli’s chapter in Thompson and Warhurst’s Workplaces of the Future is the only thorough analysis of the labour process in the software development sector in the last five years. They too adopt elements of Friedman and Cornford’s analysis.21

The basic argument of Friedman and Cornford is that Greenbaum and Kraft’s labour process analysis is true for the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. In the 1950s and 1960s software development required complex mathematical skills. Codes were written in binary form (ones and zeros). Computers were not considered central to work organisation by managers, and software developers were consequently left to their own devices. By the late 1960s, computers began to rise in importance in the economy, especially with the expansion of the service sector. For managers, IT became a potential aid in rationalising the labour of white-collar workers. In order to mass produce the necessary software, managers began to more closely scrutinise the activities of the software developer. The term “software engineering” was introduced in this period. Software engineering applied the principles of engineering to software development, as the name suggests.22

There were two initial parts to software engineering. First was the introduction of programming “languages” in order to remove the abstract, mathematical content of software development and replace it with “English-like statements”. This had an effect of deskilling, because less knowledge was required of the relationship between codes and the functions of hardware.23 Second, managers routinised this simplified process of writing software by creating formal methodologies, “procedures and protocols” for the mass production of generic software. Each stage of software production was documented in manuals.24 By the 1970s managers were able to use high-level languages and formal design structures to intensify the pace of production, and increase the workload of the software developer. In the 1980s IT services (providing back-up for users) grew rapidly to the point that users were being encouraged to write their own programs, such as spreadsheets.25 In short, in just over a decade management transformed software development from an obscure profession of which they had little understanding into an industry in which they controlled the mass production of standardised programs and generic software. This process deskilled software developers and lowered the status of their profession.

However, according to Friedman and Cornford management have never been fully able to centralise control over the software development labour process. They argue this is because the esoteric content of writing complex systems is such that it is difficult for managers to simplify software engineering to the point that other software developers, let alone unskilled labour, can do the same work.26 More particularly, the pace of technological change in the IT industry has made it difficult for managers to re-configure work organisation accordingly. In the late 1980s IT Services was the fastest growing sector, and in the 1990s it has been the internet. This has created so much “churn” in the industry that many IT workers have shifted into the new areas of work,27 where they can write software that is relatively new and that has therefore not been standardised in the same way as older systems. Friedman and Cornford apply Friedman’s well  known labour process theory to software development, arguing that changes since the 1980s have seen a shift away from “direct control” by management, towards the kind of “responsible autonomy” last seen in the 1960s.28

The individual “autonomy”of the software developer in the production process re-inforces an ideology of professionalism in the industry. The industry is full of independent contractors paid by the hour, and even permanent employees rely on a large proportion of their income from individual performance appraisal and remuneration systems. Because of the continuous demand for IT products in the wider economy, and the rapid pace of change in the industry, there has been a long term shortage of skilled IT workers.29 This “skills gap” has grown significantly in the second half of the 1990s, and has been much lamented in the business pages of the press. The skills gap has put software developers in an unusually strong individual bargaining position. Unemployment is almost non-existent in the industry, job turnover is high, and software developers are paid well above the average wage.30 This situation means that even with almost negligible union membership in the industry, and a highly individualistic workplace culture, software developers are able to accumulate impressive salaries.

This combination of factors—individualistic employment relations, lack of unions, relative autonomy in the production process, and above average remuneration—seems, on the surface, to prove the arguments of Reich and Latham. However, despite these differences with other sections of workers, there are also important similarities. Even if we accept Friedman and Cornford’s broad concept of responsible autonomy, it must also be said there are limits to any type of delegated autonomy in the context of the capitalist labour process. Despite the limitations to management directly controlling the labour of software developers, Friedman and Cornford tend to underplay the use of more advanced “object oriented” program languages, and more complex generic design structures used in the 1980s. There is also a critical relationship between demand for various systems by users and the workload of software developers. In this sense the skills gap is a double-edged sword for software developers. Although it may enhance their bargaining power as individual workers, it also puts them under intense pressure to meet industry demand.31 Although many software developers, particularly those producing complex customised systems, have a high degree of individual creative autonomy in the design process, they must write systems according to specific deadlines negotiated by management and the user/client. There is evidence which suggests the trend towards specialist “software houses” and the outsourcing of IT services by corporations and state enterprise has led to a renewed focus on rationalising the labour process of software developers. More generally, the most common trend in the industry is for managers to steadily increase the length of the working day.

In line with broader trends of increasing hours in professional occupations,32 statistics released by APESMA show that the average working week of the IT professional has risen to 45 hours, with a full quarter of professionals working in excess of 50 hours. APESMA report that “career burnout” is becoming an increasing problem.33

Labour market and salary statistics are often used in the popular media to portray software developers as well paid, career focussed professionals with an interest in the competitive performance of their employers. However, relatively high pay rates and good job opportunities cannot disguise the fact high salaries may well be produced by working excessive hours on projects in which deadlines and program specifications are controlled by management. Having said this, the lack of unions and collective bargaining structures also send a strong message that software developers are prepared to trade excessive hours for good salaries and high labour market mobility.

Software developers facing deteriorating conditions at work have two options: stay and negotiate, or find work elsewhere. Even if they decide to stay, it is more likely they will take up their issues on an individual basis with management……Or is it? The following section tells the story of the first attempt by software developers to negotiate an enterprise agreement, and the events that led to the first recorded strike in the industry.

A case study: The Software Systems Centre

This case study looks at a single workplace, the Software Systems Centre (SSC). SSC was part of a large Japanese multinational corporation, Global Systems.34 Global Systems is not a software company. It divides its operations between the production of heavy duty electrical apparatus, consumer products, and communications and electronic equipment. Workers at SSC were employed to develop software for the company’s power division, most of which was used for power stations in Japan. SSC was established in 1989 as a separate department within Global Systems’ Sydney operations and was closed in March 2000. It primarily employed software engineers, but also technical writers, who compiled computer documentation, and network and systems administrators. It was a small workplace, employing no more than 22 workers at any one time.

Angry geeks down mouses in industry first’

This was the headline in WorkersOnline, the NSW Trades and Labor Council’s website, on 9 April 1999.35 Three days earlier SSC workers had “downed mouses” after management ordered them to release software to meet a deadline for a system due to be sent to Japan. The action came after nine months of negotiations with Global Systems management. The workers had already decided not to release software because management were unwilling to certify an enterprise agreement with their union, the Australian Services Union. Management emailed instructions to each worker that, under  the relevant clauses of the Workplace Relations Act, by refusing to obey a specific order from management, in this case to release software, they were deemed to be taking industrial action and would no longer be paid. After receiving the email, the workers walked off the job.

According to the union organiser “The bosses just couldn’t believe it. Neither could the media when we told them…”36 The Financial Review’s Stephen Long wrote “It was a case of the geeks fight back…The strike was the first by IT professionals in Australia—possibly the world”.37

This case study explains why the SSC workers “fought back”. It looks at the working conditions at SSC, the period of negotiation with management, the industrial action taken by the workers, and the approach taken by management. Readers may notice that the case study often draws from direct, and occasionally lengthy, quotations from interviews. This is a deliberate strategy by the author. Quotations are meant to help make an argument, not be a substitute for one— however, the experience and conclusions of the case study are best understood when the participants speak for themselves.

Working conditions at SSC

Relations between staff and management were friendly in SSC’s first five years, with a perception among staff that they were well rewarded for their efforts. In 1995 Global Systems management in Japan established direct control over SSC’s operations. At this time working conditions began to deteriorate, with workload and hours increasing. In SSC “the projects that we would do were really long, really complex systems, that would take ages, twelve months, to do”.38 Although often workers would not exceed 35 hours a week, during deadline periods hours were excessive, with a great deal of pressure placed on workers.

This was made worse by the short period of time to test the software in Japanese power stations. As power stations have to be running most of the time, there is great pressure to test new systems during the sparse periods when they are partially shut down for periodic maintenance. Software engineers responsible for the systems had to release the software by a specific deadline. If the software did not work or contained mistakes, there was even greater pressure to “de-bug the code” and re-release the software within the fortnight or so when the power station was not fully operational. For some projects, some workers were even required to travel to Japan to help test the software. In Japan, they were expected to work up to 70 hours a week. At SSC in these periods, 50 to 60 hours per week was a common figure.

A number of factors exacerbated the problem of long hours. First, the desire among IT professionals to advance their careers led them to work extra hours and strive “above and beyond the call of duty”.39 Management took advantage of this, in a formal capacity by linking performance appraisal and salaries to the number of hours worked, and informally, by encouraging workers to undertake research and project work outside of normal working hours. Second, many staff benefits were removed, including time off work in lieu of unpaid overtime, and the removal of a daily allowance paid to staff members who were temporarily working in Japan. Management also began refusing to pay for training when new technology, such as a new operating system, was introduced.

Third, management changed the way in which they hired staff, using two methods. First, after increasing the number of staff over a couple of years, management began to stop replacing those who left. This significantly increased the workload of staff, and extended their hours further. Second, management began hiring young, inexperienced workers on twelve month contracts in which they were paid for overtime, but not for holidays or sick leave. Initially, management would employ new recruits on twelve month contracts before offering them permanent positions. Management then began to offer staff new contracts after twelve months rather than permanent positions. By early 1998 SSC was divided between permanent fulltime workers who had paid leave but were not paid for more than 35 hours a week, even though they frequently exceeded 35 hours, and contracted workers who were paid for all hours worked, but were not paid for leave and other benefits—even though both contracted and permanent workers were doing the same job.

Negotiating change

By 1998 there was considerable tension in SSC, as conditions gradually deteriorated. The catalyst for staff action came from one software engineer who had a politically active past, and was known to be pro-union by his colleagues. By March 1998 management were arguing that the recession in Japan was forcing them to cut costs. Soon after, the software engineer began “shopping around” for a union and came into contact with the ASU. Together, they decided that the first thing to do was challenge the contracts.

Even though Global Systems were trying to classify people as contractors, the nature of the contract was that Global Systems directed workers and had control over their work and, therefore, they were the real contractor. It was up to them the hours they keep and the way they want to do things. Also the fact that Global Systems was paying the insurance and the superannuation, under NSW legislation they were classified as fulltime workers and were entitled to four weeks annual leave. That was very simple under common law and NSW legislation. It was something that we could at least go on. So I went back to the workplace and started saying to people we can actually do something about this. The union organiser can come and speak to us if you want. I said anyone who’s interested please come along. It was in the context of the MUA dispute. It was on the TV every night. Everyone was talking about it. It was that kind of environment. Everyone was talking about unions.40

The meeting with the union organiser went ahead, with six workers joining the union. The workers in the union spent the next few weeks discussing the issues with other staff members via email, until about half the workplace was recruited. The workers then confronted management with an initial demand to fix the contracts. Management conceded the contracts were illegal, and agreed to backpay annual leave for the employees on contracts, many of whom had been on them for two or three years. Another group of workers joined the union after seeing this initial success.

Abolishing the contracts was only the start of the negotiations. The workers decided to negotiate a system whereby all permanent staff were paid for overtime, given that permanent fulltime workers were not paid for working more than 35 hours. Staff also wanted to standardise performance appraisal and salary determination. Performance appraisal was highly informal, with a perception among staff that it was as much based on personalities as on performance. The workers were negotiating for an agreement which covered all staff for overtime, performance appraisal and salaries— effectively an enterprise agreement. As several of the workers pointed out, most of them had never heard of an enterprise bargaining agreement. Management, advised by the Australian Industry Group, soon realised what the workers were demanding.

There was a bit of toing and froing between the ASU and the AIG over legal stuff. They tried to create a bit of a furphy. They said there is a union that covers you guys which is APESMA. They said we were in the wrong union. The ASU had no right to cover us, and we should be in APESMA. There was no way they were going to negotiate a collective agreement with the ASU, because it’s the wrong union. At the same time there was a really basic award being negotiated. APESMA had served a log of claims on other IT companies not really covering software engineers.41 It covered scientists and engineers who did IT work. The AIG was involved in these negotiations and didn’t want to get a collective agreement in place before the award. There was no collective agreement at the time covering software people in Australia so they were worried, I guess, about any precedent that would set.42

The AIG representative argued that management raised the issue of coverage because once the IT award was established APESMA would have “automatic rights of coverage”.43 However, not all the workers in SSC were eligible to join APESMA, especially those who did not have IT qualifications.

Management opposition to an enterprise agreement only made the workers more determined. Regular meetings were held to formulate demands and make collective decisions. They created an internal website, and sent a petition to the chief executive officer in Japan. During the negotiations, many worker began to learn new skills, such as how to negotiate and how to formulate demands. There was also something of a cultural shift underway as workers became used to making decisions collectively.

There was a lot of stuff about getting other people to join, getting people switched on to what it means to negotiate collectively….Those sorts of meetings were quite fascinating. We would call a union meeting and we’d talk about stuff and people would start with “well it’s pointless asking for that, because management will just say no, they won’t like that”. And we would go yeah we know that. That’s why we have to push it. People would say yep, let’s go for the 35 hour week and then say anyone who works more than 37 or 38 hours would get paid overtime. You’d say what’s with the 2 or 3 hour thing? Why do you want to work for free in that 2 or 3 hours? They would go “it’s like give and take” and someone else would go “what are you talking about? we need to get paid for the whole lot” and everyone would go “yeah, yeah you’re right, like what am I thinking”? People were, I guess, trying to get the manager out of their head and realising that there are separate interests. Management are actually trying to do us over, and people getting used to that….

….In fact, in one of the meetings someone actually said to someone else “yeah we’ve got to get over this brain washing”. Something clicked and people said “yeah right, we can actually ask for more things”.44

As this suggests, workers would often approach negotiations by starting with what management would find unacceptable, rather than what they felt they were legally or morally entitled to. The professionalism of some workers also affected how they wanted to negotiate with management. For example, most workers still wanted a large proportion of income to be determined through individual performance appraisal, even though the union organiser advised them that this had already helped management undermine their working conditions.

This process of organising and fine-tuning demands continued for several months, with workers slowly coming to grips with collective organisation and negotiation. This was one reason industrial action was not taken earlier. The union organiser explained

We sort of raised the idea of industrial action probably about four months into it but there was no way anyone was up to it. But the main thing we did was to try and create an environment in all of our meetings where people were really free to air their real feelings. Especially because a lot of these workers were really quite quiet. And they would think things, but not say it. So it took a long time to build that trust so that people were open about talking. When we first aired it, one of them honestly said, and this guy ended up being a delegate, look you know, the idea of a strike, you’ve got to understand, for us is psychologically a major barrier. Going on strike is not something IT workers do. It’s not something we ever thought we ever thought we’d do in our lifetime and it’s something we’re not prepared to do at the moment. So really what we had to do was exhaust every single strategy we could do fairly and be the most reasonable people and show that the bosses were being unreasonable. And really in the end, the workers said, well look, we’ve got no other option. We’ve exhausted every other option and it really was a case of being convinced by the process.45

Taking action

Even though the workers did not want to go on strike at the beginning, other forms of industrial action were taken. The workers banned all overtime over 37 hours a week in October 1998 “just to say to management that we’re still negotiating”.46 In December, after several meetings with staff, Global Systems made their first offer: new individual contracts. The offer included payment for overtime above 38 hours at normal (single) working rates of pay.

The offer enraged staff, who felt management had ignored their central demands. In the week before Christmas 1998, they notified management that the offer had to be withdrawn and a meeting held immediately after the Christmas break, or industrial action would be taken. In meetings, staff began to discuss work bans and even strike action.

In response, Global Systems sent a memo to staff in January 1999 which said they were concerned “that discussions between staff and management have become too adversarial….The discussions which were originally focussed on conditions, have changed to a discussion about an Enterprise Agreement. It is my understanding that most (possibly all) other IT companies do not have Enterprise Agreements. I would like to discuss the reason that staff feel the strong need for an Enterprise Agreement with Global Systems (compared with other IT employers, or will staff members only work for companies offering Enterprise Agreements from now on)…”47

The threatened action did not go ahead as management agreed to withdraw their offer and re-negotiate on overtime. An agreement was made in which staff would work on the basis of a four week cycle, averaging 35 hours a week over the course of the cycle, with overtime paid at penalty rates. But management were still not willing to certify an enterprise agreement, and the negotiations stalled once again.

Staff became increasingly angry that management would try to do anything to prevent them certifying an enterprise agreement, including stalling negotiations, or attempting to divert them into a dispute over union coverage. In addition, the role of the AIG lent a particular ideological quality to the negotiations. A software team leader argued

What union involvement did do unfortunately was bring in the AIG from the other end of the spectrum. I won’t deny that politically I’m mainly left wing, I do believe in union representation…But this guy was ideologically like Genghis Khan, you know. He was like a dinosaur. He was borderline unreasonable is probably the best way of putting it. And I didn’t feel he was representative of management opinions or views, or interests for that matter. At the end of the day what management want is a productive workforce. What unions want is happy staff, or staff working in a happy, nurturing environment and the too ain’t mutually exclusive at the end of the day. Whereas this guy, he was almost to the point where he wouldn’t talk to the union representative…I can remember her being at one meeting, and he was almost rude, you know, and it took [the development manager] to say well hold on, it seems we’re getting away from the point, a little bit here.48

This approach was directly counterposed to the intentions of staff, who, in the words of one software engineer, were prepared to push ahead through “sheer bloody-mindedness”, even though it was just as easy to find work elsewhere.

I wanted an EBA. I wanted a public agreement. One of the motivations was because we realised that this was the first of its type….We wanted that to be public so it could affect the industry as a whole. At least affect the industry like that, so we could say we’re Global Systems employees, these are the conditions under which we work.49

The geeks strike back

The final straw for the workers came early in April 1999. Another meeting was planned, pre-arranged as a discussion between management and the delegates. On the day of the meeting management insisted that the AIG representative be present. Staff agreed, on the proviso that all staff be present at the meeting as well as the delegates. In the meeting, 14 workers heard 3 managers explain that an enterprise agreement was unacceptable because “they were worried the other workers in Global Systems were going to want stuff”.50 Following the meeting, the workers contacted the union, which served notice of work bans on overtime and the release of software to Japan. In a final attempt to placate the workers, Global Systems offered a “collective Australian Workplace Agreement”, a series of AWAs with identical start and finish dates. Staff immediately rejected the offer.

On the first day of the work bans management emailed orders to staff that, under the Workplace Relations Act, they were required to obey all specific instructions by the company if they wanted to be paid.

Everyone went okay, fine. This is now a strike. Yep, catch you later. So we had another meeting straight away and said right, well I guess we’re on strike. We went back to management and said, fair enough, if you don’t pay us we’re on strike. So we’re serious, bad luck.

What happened was Global Systems decided they couldn’t risk giving us a collective agreement. I think they were quite willing to let the place just explode if it meant not giving us a collective agreement. Because they were freaked out at the ramifications for the rest of the company.

So they drew a line in the sand. They said, what’s your problem? You have won all your conditions. You’ve won a heap, which was true. We’d won heaps out of it. We said we’ve been telling you all along…

…So what it came down to was, well, go on, take all the industrial action you want in the world. We’re just going to say no. Then it was obvious that it was going to get really difficult. People started to worry.51

Staff decided their only option was arbitration. “It’s not really what we wanted but we had little else to do”. But again, under the Workplace Relations Act, the Commission only has powers to recommend a settlement to the dispute. Global Systems informed staff that they would stick to their decision regardless of the Commission’s decision. “We were hoping we could at least shame them into, you know, something.”52 At this stage the dispute hung between management’s offer of a “collective AWA” and the workers’ desire to certify a formal enterprise agreement. In the end, a compromise was achieved.

What we managed to push them into doing was having a sort of Clayton’s EBA. It is a collective common law contract which everyone is covered by and we got put in provisions that any new staff that are hired have to be under the same conditions. Nothing can be changed without all staff agreeing to it. So we didn’t end up with a registered enterprise agreement but we ended up with a collective agreement of sorts. It was really quite interesting that in nine months people went from zero consciousness to going on strike. It was the first strike of geeks in Australia definitely.53

In the aftermath of the dispute “there was a bit of carnage on both sides”.54 Several people resigned, after seeing the dispute through to the end, even if some workers were unhappy with not achieving the final step of certifying the agreement. However, as one worker said

We didn’t realise things were going to close down. We thought things were going to continue. And so we were doing it for the benefit of new people so they would get at least what we got. If they wanted to negotiate better conditions then that was up to them, but they would always get the minimum and they would always get paid overtime…So it was protection for them.55

When everyone finally went back to work, there were just 9 or 10 staff left. Over the course of the next twelve months, staff gradually left in greater numbers as new jobs beckoned and as Global Systems increasingly developed software in Japan. In March 2000, with just two people left, Global Systems closed SSC.


The action taken by workers at SSC is certainly not representative of the IT industry. They were the first IT professionals to attempt to negotiate an enterprise agreement, and to organise industrial action. Although lack of research hampers any substantive conclusions being reached on the prospects for collective organisation in the industry, empirical evidence from industry surveys suggest that the skills gap and consequent individual bargaining power and labour market mobility of software developers mean any problems encountered in the workplace with be met with an individualistic response: the worker will either attempt to air the problem with management, or will find work elsewhere. This is not usually an option for most workers in other industries.

Having said this, we know from the above mentioned survey data, and from the SSC example, that working conditions do not always match the professional status of the software developer. This is particularly true for working hours; the evidence suggests the working day has been steadily increased by managers. This was the biggest problem faced by SSC workers, and was exacerbated by the deterioration of several key benefits. SSC showed how managers can use a combination of workload, deadlines and design structures to control the labour process to the detriment of the worker.

Even though the complex systems developed at SSC meant that writing and testing codes was a highly creative, esoteric task, there were strict limits placed on the “responsible autonomy” of the workers. Software engineers were given design specifications written in Japan for particular sub-systems, or parts of a system, and had to “fill in the gaps”. This, combined with the pressure put on workers during deadline periods, tell us that real control of the labour process lay with management.

The fact the workers joined a union and took industrial action is significant because it shows what is possible. SSC

shatters the myth that IT professionals have a natural aversion to unions or are universally inclined towards individualistic behaviour. Also, it is not that one day the workers were friendly with management, and the next they were militant, class conscious trade unionists. The forms of class consciousness at SSC did not develop in linear progression. Instead, workers developed what Italian marxist Gramsci called a “contradictory consciousness”, in which they had uncritically absorbed aspects of industry and workplace practise, and management ideology, and their material circumstances were simultaneously counterposed to the interests of management.56 For example, most workers had to be thoroughly convinced that joining a union was the most appropriate action to take. Even after joining, most workers retained a “professional outlook” to the negotiations with management. Industrial action was initially ruled out as an option. Workers would often begin with what demands management would find acceptable, rather than what they felt they were legally and morally entitled to. Most workers also retained a commitment to individual performance appraisal.

Two factors were critical in shifting the workers towards industrial action. One was the continual intransigence of management in delaying negotiations, attempting to “create a furphy” over union coverage, and by refusing to certify an enterprise agreement under any circumstances. By April 1999 the workers were so disenchanted at management’s refusal to honour what they felt was a reasonable demand that they believed industrial action was the only option left. The second important factor were the openings provided by basic union democracy and leadership in the workplace. Without the intervention of one software engineer in particular, who already happened to have a political commitment to unionism, and without the continuous process of discussion and debate, the campaign to improve workplace conditions would have failed.

It is a testament to the level of class consciousness reached that most workers stayed when it would have been easier to find work elsewhere, as they freely admitted, and because, by the end, they were conscious that this was the first dispute of its kind in Australia, that theirs was a landmark struggle.

Although it is highly unlikely that examples like SSC will emerge on a mass scale in the near future, given the current economic and labour market environment, it is important to understand the political significance of what occurred at SSC. Workers, students, and intellectuals who believe unions are critical to the health of contemporary society should see the example set by the SSC workers as an empirical and an ideological blow against Latham, Tanner, Lewis and others within the ranks of Labor for whom a skewed vision of IT workers provides a convenient theoretical base to dismiss unions as irrelevant to workers in the modern economy.


1 J.Stallabrass “Empowering Technology: The Exploration of Cyberspace”, New Left Review 211, 1995, 3-32, pp3-4; L.Tanner Open Australia Sydney, Pluto Press, 1999; C.Wilson “The Politics of Information Technology”, International Socialism 74, 1997, 41-71, pp42-3.
2 “Anderson Hails the New Economy”, The Australian (IT) 17 October 2000.
3 B.Gates The Road Ahead London, 1995; J.Katz Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho New York, Hodder, 2000; M.Latham Civilising Global Capital: New Thinking for Australian Labor Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1998; R.Reich The Work of Nations New York, AA Knopf, 1991; Tanner op cit.
4 Latham op cit; Reich op cit.
5 Computerworld 23,19 19 November 1999, p4.
6 J.Greenbaum “The Times They Are A’Changing: Dividing and Recombining Labour Through Computer Systems” in P.Thompson and C.Warhurst (eds) Workplaces of the Future London, MacMillan, 1998, 124-41; Shadur op cit p141.
7 M.Shadur “Employment Relations in the Australian Information Technology Industry” in J.Kitay and R.D.Lansbury (eds) Changing Employment Relations in Australia Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1997, 131-57, pp131-2; P.Beaumont “Industrial Relations Policies in High Technology Firms”, New Technology, Work and Employment 1,2 1986, 152-59, p154.
8 H.Braverman Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century New York, Monthly Review, 1974.
9 For a good review of the debates, see C.R.Littler “The Labour Process Debate: A Theoretical Review 1974-1988”, in D.Knights and H.Willmott (eds) Labour Process Theory London, MacMillan, 1990, 46-94.
10 M.Rosen and J.Baroudi “Computer-Based Technology and the Emergence of New Forms of Managerial Control” in A.Sturdy, D.Knights and H.Willmott (eds) Skill and Consent: Contemporary Studies in the Labour Process London, Routledge, 1992, 213-34, p201, 228; W.J.Orlikowski “Computer Technology in Organisations: Some Critical Notes” in D.Knights and H.Willmott (eds) New Technology and the Labour Process London, MacMillan, 1988, 20-49, pp35-7; M.Beirne and H.Ramsay “Computer Redesign and ‘Labour Process’ Theory: Towards a Critical Appraisal” in Knights and Willmott, op cit, 197-229, p197.
11 J.Storey “The Phoney War? New Office Technology: Organisations and Control” in D.Knights and H.Willmott (eds) Managing the Labour Process Aldershot, Gower, 1986, 44-66, pp55-6; H.Rolfe “Skill, Deskilling and New Technology in the Non-Manual Labour Process”, New Technology, Work and Employment 1,1 1986, 37-49, p40.
12 S.Smith “How Much Change in Store? The Impact of New Technologies and Labour Processes on Managers and Staff in Retail Distribution” in Knights and Willmott op cit 1988, 143-62, pp150-1.
13 J.Kitay and M.Rimmer “Australian Retail Banking: Negotiating Employment Relations Change” in Kitay and Lansbury, op cit 102-30; T.Watanabe “New Office Technology and the Labour Process in Contemporary Japanese Banking”, New Technology, Work and Employment 5,1 1990, 56-66.
14 G.J.Bamber, M.Shadur and D.Simmons “Change and Continuity of Employment Relations in Australian Telecommunications” in Kitay and Lansbury op cit 185-217, p203.
15 Greenbaum op cit pp128-9; “Call Centre Award Campaign”, http://asuservices.labor.net.au/news/campaigns/19990712_ccac.html 12 July 1999 (accessed May 2000); A.Hilliard “The Stellar Experiment”, http://asuservices.labor.net.au/asupeople/callcentres/ (accessed May 2000); S.Hayes “ACTU Pushes Call Centre Code”, The Australian (IT) 21 November 2000. An ironic source for the degradation of working conditions in call centres is anecdotal evidence provided in P.Lewis Tales From the New Shopfloor: Inside the Real Jobs of the Information Economy Sydney, Pluto Press, 2000, p38. The irony is that Lewis locates himself within the same “Third Way” camp of social democracy as Latham and Tanner, and (unsuccessfully) attempts to use the evidence he has gathered to praise the virtues of work in the new economy.
16 Shadur op cit p155
17 M.Beirne, H.Ramsay and A.Panteli “Developments in Computing Work: Control and Contradiction in the Software Labour Process” in Thompson and Warhurst op cit 142-62, p142.
18 J.M.Greenbaum In the Name of Efficiency: Management Theory and Shopfloor Practice in Data Processing Work Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1979; P.Kraft Programmers and Managers: The Routinisation of Computer Programming in the United States New York, Springer-Verlag, 1977.
19 A.L.Friedman and D.S.Cornford Computer Systems Development: History, Organisation and Implementation Wiley, 1989.
20 R.Finch “Computing Occupations: Organisational Power, Work Transition and Collective Mobility”, New Technology, Work and Employment 9,1 1994, 43-53; R.Fincham, J.Fleck, R.Proctor, H.Scarbrough and R.Williams Expertise and Innovation: Information Technology Strategies in the Financial Services Sector Oxford, Clarendon, 1994.
21 Beirne et al, op cit.
22 Fincham et al, op cit p170
23 Beirne et al, op cit pp146-7; Fincham et al, op cit p170.
24 Beirne et al, op cit pp148-9, 151
25 Fincham et al, op cit pp175-6
26 Friedman and Cornford op cit; Fincham et al, op cit p170
27 P.Broekhuyse “Bone Up to Prosper: Expert”, The Australian (IT) 21 November 2000.
28 Friedman and Cornford op cit; For Friedman’s original thesis, see A.L.Friedman Industry and Labour: Class Struggle at Work and Monopoly Capitalism London, MacMillan, 1977.
29 Computerworld 23,18 5 November 1999, p10; C.Bolger “How to Fill the Upcoming ICT Skills Gap?”, APESMA Professional Update, http://www.apesma.asn.au/newsviews/professional_update/october_2000/ict_skills_gap.htm (accessed October 2000).
30 Australian Computer Society (ACS), 2000 Remuneration Survey Report, http://www.apesma.asn.au/ surveys/acs/remun_update/acs00_rem_update.htm (accessed October 2000); J.Foreshew “Skills Shortage Pushes Up Pay”, The Austrlain (IT) 21 November 2000.
31 Beirne et al, op cit pp154-5
32 Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training (ACIRRT) Australia at Work: Just Managing? Sydney, Prentice Hall, 1999, p4, p103.
33 M.Kane “Addicted to Work”, APESMA Professional Update, October 1999, http://www.apesma.asn.au /newsviews/professional_update/oct_1999/work.htm (accessed October 2000); P.Marchionni “Are we there yet?”, APESMA Professional Update, September 2000, http://www.apesma.asn.au/newsviews/ professional_update/september_2000/ (accessed October 2000).
34 The real names of both the company and the workplace are not used in this study.
35 “Angry Geeks Down Mouses in Industry First”, WorkersOnline, 8, April 9 1999
36 Interview with ASU organiser, March 2000
37 S.Long “The state of this union”, Australian Financial Review. Article recovered from AFR Net Services 21 August 1999, www.afr.com.au
38 Interview with software engineer A, March 2000
39 Interview with software engineer B, June 2000
40 Interview with software engineer A, March 2000
41 Information Technology Industry (Professional Engineers) Award 1999. http://www.apesma. asn.au/professions/itpa/it_award_1999.htm (accessed October 2000). This award covers professional, qualified and graduate engineers who work for IT firms, including such notable companies as Amdahl, Andersen Consulting, Canon, Claris, Com Tech, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, IPC, NEC, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Unisys, Digital, Ericsson, and Cisco Systems.
42 Interview with software engineer A, March 2000
43 Interview with AIG representative, October 2000
44 Interview with software engineer A, March 2000
45 Ibid
46 Interview with software engineer A, March 2000
47 Internal memorandum from the SSC development manager to staff, January 1999
48 Interview with software team leader, April 2000
49 Interview with software engineer C, August 2000
50 Interview with software engineer A, March 2000
51 Ibid
52 Ibid
53 Ibid
54 Ibid
55 Interview with technical writer, March 2000
56 A.Gramsci Selections from the Prison Notebooks London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, p333.