OPINION

The Most Powerful Labor Union in the World: Linux?

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 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, 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 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 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.


19 Comments

  • <blockquote>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 has often done) pull all advertising from the site, and they could also make threatening comments (that they probably couldn’t enforce).</blockquote><br />
    Or they could just buy up another writer/thinktank, with a rebuttal which exonerates them and villifies their enemies, like they’ve always done in the past.<br /><br />
    <blockquote>…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.</blockquote><br />
    Firstly, the readers did the damage. They expected a certain quality from the works provided by the company. The company did not provide it. Their dumbass fault. Secondly, I completely agree with him here, neither the US government or Microsoft have ever put a business out of business (rolls eyes).<br /><br />
    <blockquote>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.</blockquote><br />
    Blind statements asserting Linux is a terrorist entity. Yeah, Linux as a base of software is as big a terrorist entity as the Red Cross or Salvation Army. Because giving software away is really going to destroy the power grids and such. I would say rampant Windows viruses and trojans are a much larger national security threat and business threat. And again he drops the word union.<br /><br />
    <blockquote>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.</blockquote><br />
    Oh this is my favorite one, where he directly equates Linux as a potential terrorist threat. And he keeps trying to convince the feeble minded that Linux, somehow, is akin to a union. You know maybe it is like a union, a union of companies. A knowledge sharing foundation which promotes growth, discourages reinvention, and promotes innovation as a companies distinctions. Microsoft on the other hand has been convicted of committing crimes. Is that not what a criminal is?

    • Please research your claims more thoroughly before you make and perpetuate them.
      _
      http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_22/b3935001_mz001.htm
      _
      In January, 2004, a new virus called MyDoom attacked the Web site of the SCO Group Inc. (SCOX ), a software company that claimed the open-source Linux program violated its copyrights. Most security experts suspected the virus writer was a Linux fan seeking revenge. They were wrong. While the SCO angle created confusion, MyDoom acted like a Trojan horse, infecting millions of computers and then opening a secret backdoor for its author.

  • Oh, come on, people. If this "article" had been a response on a forum, you all would have instantly recognized the poster as a troll. Anyone who was fooled by the "news column" formatting, please go to the back of the class.
    .
    Many thanks to those who posted research exposing this "commentary" for the weak sauce that it is. The only touch I would add is to change the default title when responding in the future (to provide a sort of outline of the information added by readers, and help cut down on redundant responses).

  • Open source enthusiasts, zealots, and hobbyists are all separate categories. Not all of them even know how to login to a linux box for that matter.
    You’re missing the entire paradigm here, the open source movement is about freedom, not about unity and restriction. (Not to mention that at times, labor unions kill entire industries, or nearly so, [ex. Airlines, American steel production, mining])
    So, given that people in the categories you have mentioned may not even agree on what it is that they support, and that organizing and centralizing would be completely in opposition to say the priciples of the FSF (just for an example, because again, not everyone involved even knows who they are,) I’d say you’re slanting this entire scenario the wrong way.
    And if you really believed what you’re writing, then why would you risk exposing your beloved publisher to the sorts of attacks you purport will happen to anti-linux propagandists? (Ha!)
    You’re entitled to your opinion, of course. But, the opinion which you have formulated and illustrated via this artcle is based on supposition and spin that are not consistent with the facts.
    I now digress.

  • They say they are hit by a massive DOS.. i find that unlikly if we have millions of users that care about the story. I was one. i wanted to know what it was all about, so I click the links to the story. If millions of others also felt that way and click the links then that is milions of requests for information (or legit requests for service from there web servers)
    so are they Spinning there lack of capacity as a DOS attack so that they can look good, and not admit that they didn’t plan for the level intrest?
    SCO claimed a DOS attack also, can they show that it was a DOS or just 10 million angry people wanting information about what they where claiming?

  • Sigh. Still peddling the same old lies about linux zealots making DDOS attacks on SCO. Sorry. The Linux Community’ was never involved in this. Even Business Week says it was Russian Windows crackers who were responsible for this.

  • hehe, good one Rob.
    The problem is that there is no leadership, nobody is in charge of Linux or Free Software or Open Source or any of these things. The code belongs to everyone, there are simply people who are currently organising it for a few people.
    Red Hat don’t listen to Linus about their kernel, they put what they want in, same for all the other Linux vendors, Linus just releases some tarballs that most people think are useful, so they use them.
    Linus can’t stand up one day and demand that all Linux users strike until the US govt does something, it simply wouldn’t happen. To suggest otherwise implies, to me at least, that you haven’t properly grasped how the community around Free/OpenSource software works. Email me if you’d like to discuss it.

  • Mr. Enderle:
    .
    I can’t believe I actually took the time to read this pile of idiocy you’re calling an article. Comparing the Linux community to unions, the Mafia, and terrorists all in one piece? Wow.
    .
    Of course, what it all really comes down to is a defense of the actions of fellow "journalist" (and I use that term loosely) Maureen O’Gara. I’d ask why you want to throw your reputation behind such a venomous, spiteful individual, except I think everyone who’s read your articles can agree your reputation sucks.
    .
    Still, why are you backing her up? Is this really all over the goings on with Sys-Con Media and the article of doom? The Linux community (and other people; given what O’Gara wrote, I can’t imagine we’re the only ones complaining about it) did right to rage back against that article. While there may have been fact there – and that’s debatable (even O’Gara doesn’t really know) – the fact that she thinks activity tantamount to stalking and borderline threats against Pamela Jones – and you and Fuat Kircaali tacitly approve this activity – that’s just outrageous. How would you like someone harassing your parents about something you wrote in a story, or put up on a website? I can only imagine you wouldn’t be too pleased about it – and rightly so. How is the Linux community’s reaction wrong, then, other than the fact that there are many of us instead of one?
    .
    Don’t get me wrong, the press is definitely important. However, you and Maureen O’Gara, and some other people in the press, seem to think the right to free press is immutable. It’s not, and was never meant to be. If there’s anyone behaving in a Mafioso-like fashion here, it’s you and Maureen O’Gara. If you have something to say, fine, say it. Doesn’t mean everyone’s going to like it, but you can say it. However, when you start hounding people irrelevant to your precious story just to get your own way, don’t be all surprised when, as with Maureen O’Gara, you get called on it big-time.
    .
    And someone else’s description of O’Gara’s story as "yellow journalism" is wrong – her writing, particularly her "expose’" on Pamela Jones, doesn’t even rate that high.

  • Mr. Enderle, I do not believe any journalist, individual or organization with an ounce of integrity has anything to fear from the collaborative power of the Linux community.
    SCO attacked Linux at the roots, with what is now widely accepted as gross distortions of facts. Without knowledge of legalese and a lack of a reasoned – knowledgeable mainstream journalism to turn to, Groklaw became my daily read.
    It opens a lot of folks eyes to dissect the legal goings on in the tech world, even if some comments are colorful, the facts are presented very clearly just as they appear from the court records.
    Knowledge does not require a Union. If I want biased journalism without proper respect to the facts, I know where I can find your writings now.
    You should probably have elaborated on the reasons the LinuxWorld staff walked out, maybe even add some quotes from them.
    If you fear the power of Linux, you fear knowledge, empowerment and truth.

  • It is clear the Mr. Enderle has his brain succumbed in the darkest of matter and obviously does not show any signs of having a clue. By itself this is ok for it is what we have come to expect from him. However, it seems Mr. Enderle has taken a rather bad 101 in cunningness by trying to wrap a kind of "Linux is scary, stay away from it" message in his sad little OpEd about a Linux & F/OSS focused union. Once again his bias towards Microsoft and SCO is painfully clear, similar to Maureen O’Gara.
    O’Gara tried to discredit the Linux & F/OSS community too, in the end by desparately resorting to totally unethical and unprofessional means. It was not the Linux & F/OSS community that chose for O’Gara to do what she did. She dug her own grave by defying the general rules and principles of journalism with her personal vendetta that only seemed to exist in her mind. I guess McBride needs to find another "journalist" to do his dirty work for him. The derailment of O’Gara shows it can bite you in the behind. Food for thought for those that walk the razor’s edge.
    Mr. Enderle’s fumbling attempts to discredit Linux and the F/OSS community shows he still is a despicable lackey serving his evil masters (and not doing a very good job I might add). Makes you wonder if he gets rewarded for it. As Deep Throat said "follow the money"…

  • It seems to my mind that we are now starting to see a pattern of articles critically negative about linux, and that lack a fair and critical approach.
    I for one, take objection to the author’s grouping of all linux supporters and open-source initiatives into the singular "Linux" with a capital "L". It is simply not fair to write in this manner, when you are referring to a disparate group of individuals, and especially a group so broad as to encompass "linux users", companies making an income from linux (Redhat, SuSE. etc.), multinationals such as IBM, Sun and Novell, "developers", hobbyists, educationalists, governments and so forth.
    The author ignored the power of corporations to bring themselves down, through their own bad decisions. Surely part of the reason for SCO�s demise is that they just didn’t have a way to make a profit without conjuring up a ludicrous lawsuit, and also that they just didn’t have a valid case? Isn’t it fair to mention that? In a fair and balanced article it would be, actually.
    There is also a new and disturbing trend in America that really does alarm the rest of the world. It generally starts with labeling someone a terrorist, for instance in this way:
    "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"
    Where did this leap of logic come from, and what damage can such general statements do to the innocent? What damage have they already done in other contexts?
    Finally, the author wrote:
    "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."
    So linux users/developers are children then? Where have they hidden their weapons of mass destruction? This makes Y2K seem positively benign! Who indeed is more dangerous? Could it perhaps be those who write the articles that damage the reputation of others, perhaps? And to whom are they themselves accountable?

  • This article hardly has premise, as the author seems to be intentionally misrepresenting the context and of his example. Either he doesn’t have a good understanding of the sys-con issue, or he is using it as an opportunity to make noise (traffic). I believe this to be another case of the author trying stir up more traffic for his advertising-supported employer’s site. If that is not the case, then it’s difficult to believe that he doesn’t have a personal agenda. Anybody who cares to know the facts can find them with just a little searching, at which point the obvious SHILLyness of this article will become much more apparent.

  • Ah, what an interesting story. I like how you portrayed it as a She-said/She-said argument, and that those crazy Linux users went berzerk. Also, I like the part where their power wielding caused the downfall of LinuxWorld. It wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting if Maureen had written a really vindictive, personal attack and the masses rose up and cried for decency. I like your version MUCH better. Thanks!

  • Speaking of incomplete, it’s odd to me that anyone could write on the O’Gara article without mentioning the photographs of mailboxes, information on where to find Pamela Jones’s mother, and other info which made the article read more like a stalker’s diary than an article in a technology publication.
    I’m a systems administrator who works on both Solaris and Linux boxes. I’m not given to going on children’s crusades. But the O’Gara article was so egregious I found it hard to believe it would get through even the sloppiest of editorial processes. At this point I feel sorry for Ms. O’Gara (the article read like a very public mental breakdown), but you’ve presented a very inaccurate picture of the nature of that article. The response it got was predictable, and not unjust.

  • Ho hum. Failed at the terrorist painting game, you are now back to try to paint us as labor unions?
    Rob, your assertions are, as usual, without merit.
    Nothing to see here people, just a man trying to find a new way to play his game. He’s still stuck trying to demonize Linux, users, and developers, because he is wrong on every count (as usual).Have a nice day Rob, hope they pay you well to air your hatred of all things Linux (because it’s all about IBM in your narrow views of the world). Your grudge is hanging on your sleeve. Have a nice day all, it’s just another piece by someone who demands you buy into his views of proprietary lock-in – you know, a dinosaur.
    freecode

  • In regards to the alleged DoS on Sys-Con, this most likely was not an attack at all but a simple slashdotting. As you point out in your article, the story received out-of-proportion (for a normal Sys-Con article) coverage. It sounds like Sys-Con wasn’t expecting this volume of traffic and just collapsed under the load.
    You’re right about the reaction though. I wish I had snapshotted the various stances of the Sys-Con EIC. He want from "what’s the problem" to "we stand by O’Gara" to "we pulled it because our advertisers threatened to walk" to (after the LinuxWorld staff walked) "we agree, the article was trash and shouldn’t have contained the personally identifiable information — O’Gara is gone!, mea culpa".
    All within about a day and a half. Talk about Olympic-class backpedaling!
    -Charles

  • Dear Mr. Enderle
    As far as I AM aware, you are the only person who is of the opinion that the consequences of "the O’Gara/PJ saga … did more damage then(sic) good."
    Possibly Ms. Jones was somewhat discomfitted by the additional exposure of personal particulars not at all pertinent to her leadership of Groklaw, but there was no "goal" to "eliminate the offending article" though there certainly was a consensus that it was a good thing.
    As you yourself point out, there was no leadership at all. Merely a collective scream of outrage.
    I AM AM used and more than a little pleased that you so fear our inchoate collective power so much that you consider it "nuclear". No, there is no leadership as such, there are no nuclear bombs. There are just tens of thousands of individuals, "little points of light" to recall an expression, which when turned and focused upon your professional colleague for her gross abuse of her position burned her badly.
    No there is no leadership. Merely consensus; the focus and attention, the heat, upon any issue will be the sum of our individual interests: when our interests are mild there will be a little light; where great but disparate there will be much light but diffuse, illuminating but rarely burning; but when the interest is huge and coherent throughout our community the sum of those lights will be as a laser burning at the focus of our wrath and balefully illuminating those uncomfortably near.
    An apt analogy, don’t you think?
    In many ways our community needs no leadership. Projects do, of course, and they get them. We have shared interests and neighborhoods, clubs, societies, and casual associations as any community does. We have leaders, we feel no lack that they can only lead by consensus.
    The true lack, the failure of leadership in this little embarassment belongs to YOUR profession. This was a failure of journalism, and it fell to the Linux community to address it.
    — TWZ

  • I don’t see why the Linux community at large should be associated with a small group of people indulging in what is criminal activity in many countries (DoS attacks, spamming). SCO is more than capable of falling flat on its face by its own means and these hoodlums who attack its networks do no one any favors. Please don’t confuse zealots with unionists or Linux and the rest of the Open Source community in general.

  • Once again, you’ve got a few things wrong.
    .
    1) Most of us can agree that O’Gara has a right to publish her trash piece. If we were concerned about its basic content spreading, a slightly redacted version of its content wouldn’t have been posted on Slashdot. We were concerned about the address and phone number being published, which could very well cross the line into being illegal (never mind how exactly O’Gara obtained this woman’s phone records).
    .
    What we had a problem with (aside from the invasion of someone’s privacy) was O’Gara being able to use LinuxWorld as a forum for her yellow journalism. People can go read her article all they want (at least the redacted version)–pretty much everyone who’s read the piece agrees that it’s little more than a worthless hate screed.
    O’Gara has news sites of her own where she can behave just as badly as she wants anyways. First Amendment entitles her to that. First Amendment does not allow her to force her way onto any forum she wants.
    .
    2) The senior editing staff of LinuxWorld didn’t leave because of the alleged DoS attack, or because of the community response. They left because they were disgusted with O’Gara’s actions, and they had never agreed to share a forum with her to begin with. Sys-con had been dictating the content of the LinuxWorld site for too long and had left the "editors" with no real editorial control over the site. Blaming their departure on the community response to an article is either ignorance or convenient disregard for well-published facts.
    .
    Being held accountable for something without having any control over it is a mug’s game. As far as the LinuxWorld editors are concerned, the O’Gara piece was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

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