The Most Powerful Labor Union in the World: Linux?

By Rob Enderle

May 30, 2005

This is power that Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and many governments could only dream of having. The power to control the press and the skills contained in this organization are likely capable of disrupting travel, power grids and other broad national infrastructure systems if their demands are not met.

For several years a number of us have been anticipating the emergence of a Software Labor Union. The argument has not been whether it will emerge but what form it will take. The conditions for forming technology unions have never been better.

In many companies there exists a huge difference in compensation between the management (particularly the CEOs) and the folks that actually make and service the products. There is also an increasing tendency for executives to treat employees (particularly IT employees) as disposable assets, and you have what appears to be an increasing lack of respect for the competence of management in the industry.

Forming a union isn't easy, however. It has been some time since we have seen the birth of a major union because getting people to agree on the form, direction, and leadership of such an entity is very difficult. In addition, there are concerns about management response and few, during hard labor times, want to be seen as union organizers.

For a union to work you need a critical mass of people, you need a way to organize them as a resource, you need the power of threat, and you need effective leadership.

Linux: Critical Mass Requirement Met

For the purpose of this column I'm going to use the word "Linux" to refer to the group of people who support it and the open-source initiatives that surround it. The eventual name of the hypothetical union may use a derivative of this name or, more likely, a name related to open source. Something like the "Open Software Union," or the "The Union of Free Software Professionals," or, my favorite, the "Software Technical Union Derivative Standards" (Studs).

Kidding aside, Linux and open source has penetrated most technical schools, government IT shops, and technology companies. Its membership, while not officially listed, is easily in the millions of people who believe in or support their version of the concept of open source, which Linux, to them, represents. There may not be a great deal of agreement on the terms, but the group can act as a group and has the tools to coordinate that action.

Linux: Organization Requirement Met

Those tools are based on the richness of the Internet, newsletters and blogs with RSS feeds, and more traditional technical publications the Linux faithful can be directed to act with some degree of confidence. The battle with SCO was a case in point: At no time in history has a technology firm been as thoroughly attacked as SCO has been since their litigation with IBM [ ] (NYSE: IBM) started.

SCO has experienced massive Denial of Service attacks, the company's customer base has been inundated, their funding sources have been strangled, their executive leadership has been threatened, and their ability to function has been almost completely eliminated. In what has been a massive and loosely coordinated effort, a multi-million dollar company backed by a strong legal team has been all but put out of business, and this couldn't have happened without some form of organization. Microsoft [ ] (Nasdaq: MSFT), with all of its resources, seems powerless against the massive engine represented by Linux, and its supporters often appear as an endangered species during a government-approved hunting season.

In addition, companies using Linux technology and not complying with the GPL [ ] generally face a combination of legal and public relations exposures more similar to what would happen if they faced a union than if they faced a company. Linux has showcased over and over again that, when threatened, it can move as a group to eliminate that threat.

Linux: Power Requirement Met

Let's take the most powerful software company in the world, Microsoft, and imagine a scenario where they had a problem with a negative article. Generally they could call and complain, they could (as Oracle [ ] (Nasdaq: ORCL) has often done) pull all advertising from the site, and they could also make threatening comments (that they probably couldn't enforce).

Other than that, their options are limited, and the chance that they could actually have the column removed, let alone actually do damage to the author, is extremely limited. Even the U.S. government generally doesn't have the power to remove an offending piece unless it is totally inaccurate.

Linux faced a similar challenge recently and easily eliminated the direct threat, though the way they did it demonstrated both strength and a clear weakness. We'll deal with the strength in this section and the weakness in the next.

Here's what happened: A reporter named Maureen O'Gara wrote an expose on Groklaw's founder Pamela Jones (PJ). In it O'Gara implied, but did not prove, that PJ worked for IBM, and in building her incomplete case she did create a powerful argument suggesting PJ wasn't really who she appeared to be.

You can find the text of this article here [ ]. Although clearly incomplete, the column was approved by publisher Sys-Con Media [ ], which also publishes 15 other technology titles. The publisher felt the column was accurate and stood behind it; much like they would have done had Microsoft, or even the U.S. government, disagreed and raised a stink.

However, in this case, Sys-Con folded and pulled the expose, which is why you can now only find a copy of it on Slashdot. It is amazing how powerful the response was. In a coordinated combination of attacks which included a broad DOS attack on Sys-Con and an e-mail attack on Sys-Con's advertisers, Linux effectively made good on a threat that is beyond even Microsoft's reach, and often beyond the U.S. government's reach. That threat is putting your company out of business if the desired result is not achieved.

What is even more amazing is the effort was so powerful it may have eliminated a sister publication as collateral damage. LinuxWorld may no longer be a viable publication after the voluntary departure [ ] of its entire editorial staff.

This is power that Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and many governments could only dream of having. The power to control the press and the skills contained in this organization are likely capable of disrupting travel, power grids and other broad national infrastructure systems if their demands are not met. No union has this kind of power today. However, power without leadership is just dangerous and often more dangerous to the very organization which has the power.

Linux: Leadership Unmet

The O'Gara/PJ saga also demonstrates the lack of mature leadership. In this instance the effort, while it clearly demonstrated the power, actually did more damage than good. The goal was to eliminate the offending article and in the process of doing it they actually made is massively more visible and more damaging. Were this Microsoft and a PR executive, in the process of killing a story Microsoft didn't like, it would give the story national coverage and paint Microsoft as the criminal. Microsoft would likely fire the PR executive, who probably would not find another PR job too soon.

In this instance PC Magazine [,1759,1816439,00.asp ] picked the story up, Coronte [ ], eWeek [ ], CMP [ ], and apparently Forbes has even picked it up.

This isn't containment. It is a disaster showcasing what can happen if power, any power, is used without concern for the consequences. While the O'Gara column probably would only have been read by a few technical people, this broad coverage has been read by the general business buyer, and so the story has evolved from being a mere piece about an obscure person running an obscure Linux Web site focused on killing an obscure company to one broadly showcasing Linux as made up by "fanatics and lunatics" (John C. Dvorak). This isn't a child running around with scissors. This is child running around with a nuclear bomb.

Without strong leadership any organization with this much power can easily find itself with an image more similar to that of organized crime than one of organized labor (and, recall, the two have, historically, often appeared as interchangeable). It shouldn't take long for someone to emerge as the leader of what is likely becoming a world power that could stand up to most governments.

While this union forms it probably would be very wise to make sure the leadership is mature and benevolent because the one thing we don't need is another powerful criminal despot.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group [ ], a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

Copyright 2005