The Union Label

Last week was a political one. I spent a few days at the CCIA Open Source and Industry Alliance Caucus in Washington (more on that later), and a reception for the Open Resource Group (no URL yet).

At one point, I found myself vigorously defending a position that I wouldn’t have thought I held. Sometimes, a discussion leads one to a new realization (well, it happens to me, anyway). In this case, I realized the congruence between the motivations of the organized labor movement and the open source software movement.

As a movement, open source software has been about empowering individuals at the grass roots, by encouraging collaboration to achieve the goals, and resisting the unenlightened (typically large corporations) who would seek to prevent this. Strangely reminiscent of the labor movement. Unions are about empowering workers at the grass roots, by encouraging collaboration to achieve the goals, and resisting the unenlightened (typically large corporations) who would seek to prevent this. The goal of the open source advocate is better and cheaper software — the goal of the union activist is better working conditions and higher wages.

So, another way of thinking about this is that the open source movement is basically a union organizing movement for programmers.

Certainly, the venture capitalists may not see it the same way. And, certainly, the libertarian streak that runs through the open source community will take exception to this characterization (hence the vigorous defense I mentioned earlier). Still, those libertarians are working hard to organize a grass roots community to collaboratively build better software.

Some union sympathizers focus primarily on working conditions and wages — quality and value. As do some open source advocates. Some union sympathizers focus more on human rights and freedoms. So do some open source advocates. But that tends to be a schism of rhetoric, not objectives.

The next step would seem to be organizing the open source community by creating a dues-paying membership. The dues would fund the key activities in a stabler way than the current charitable contribution model. The Free Software Foundation took a step in this direction with the introduction of their Associates program. I joined. It is an opportunity to participate in funding the movement. I hope you join, too.

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