[consulting] Guilds vs. Unions

Alfredo Reyes alfredo.e.reyes at gmail.com
Mon Aug 10 20:00:40 UTC 2009

Unions and Guilds seem to be getting conflated here, but they are very
different things.

Guilds are like trade associations - they can include employers, workers and
independent consultants. Unions are for workers and freelancers only, not
for business owners with employees or management-level employees.

Guilds are medieval in origin. They existed to stifle free trade, protect
territorial monopolies, enforce social hierarchies within trades, and to
hoard intellectual property. They weren't just fraternities that banded
together to educate and certify their members, they actively worked to
withhold knowledge from outsiders and new tradesmen. Guilds lost influence
in the 18th century, and were criticized by both classical liberals and
socialists as stifling free trade and creating inequalities among workers.

In modern times, in the United States at least, the three most well-known
surviving "guilds" are the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild and the
Graphic Artists Guild. The primary mission of these guilds is to enforce
intellectual property and copyrights. This is problematic for anyone working
in the free software field, as the major surviving function of these guilds
is to enforce an intellectual property regime that almost all Drupal coders
are opposed to, or at least not working within. The only reason these guilds
outlasted all the others that passed away over the past 200 years is because
they were able to advocate for, create and enforce increasingly restrictive
intellectual property laws.

Unions are workers' organizations. Only non-management employees and
freelancers, or Drupal shops organized as membership organizations like
Koumbit and the Chicago Technology Cooperative, would be eligible to join.
That means some of the people who are influential in the Drupal community
and active in the Drupal Association would be excluded from participation in
a union, maybe even Dries, if he has the power to hire, fire and discipline
Acquia employees.

The purpose of a union might not only be, as Victor pointed out, defending
the entire community of interests of Drupal coders, but also intervening in
individual disputes with employers over wages, working conditions and
violations of labor law (these do occur, even in Drupal shops that aren't
"sweatshops"). Some Drupal employers might see this as a threat to the
control of their companies, to their reputations, and to their influence on
the overall direction of the Drupal project.

Another thing a union could do is provide group health insurance, retirement
funds, and political advocacy for fairer treatment of freelancers. This is
what the already-existing Freelancers Union (http://www.freelancersunion.org)
does. There's nothing stopping any Drupal freelancer from joining this union
immediately, but of course, employees of Drupal shops can't join, and the
Freelancer's Union does not intervene in employer disputes. Perhaps a tech
union not limited to freelancers could provide similar services for all
Drupalists, as well as expand into contractual relations with individual
shops, although I suspect the demand for the latter would be quite low. It
should be pointed out that most, but not all unions in the United States are
organized by workplace, while it is more common for union membership in
Europe and elsewhere to "follow" the worker from job to job, not depending
on contractual relations with individual employers. Perhaps this more
flexible model is what IT workers need.

A union could also provide certifications, events and training, but the
barriers to entry to those programs should be low (affordable, available in
many locations internationally, and not requiring that you sign away your
rights and privacy oDesk-style) and have a firm ground in open source

A union could also function as a more democratic counterbalance to the
Drupal Association by allowing all its members to constitute a general
assembly with voting rights, rather than limiting such rights to a  few
permanent members like the Drupal Association does.
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