Saturday, September 26, 2009

Unions aren't for Entrepreneurs

My position at UMass is covered by a collective bargaining agreement, so I got to experience firsthand what it's like to work in a union.

The experience wasn't pleasant-- I quit at the end of August, mostly because I want to take bigger risks to get bigger potential rewards, but at least partly because of the rigid, one-size-fits-all, stuck-in-the-1950's nature of the union.

I'll admit I was vaguely cynical about unions before working under one. They seemed like "socialism lite" -- the idea being that if the Workers of the Company Unite, then they will get a More Fair Share of the wealth that their Hard Work creates for the Greedy Capitalists who own the company.

I'm not sure what the story would be for unions at UMass; maybe "Workers Unite So We Get A Bigger Share of Taxpayer's Money" ?

Anyway, I was cynical because I have faith that free-market competition keeps the Greedy Capitalists in check, and any increases in wages or benefits that the union wins are just passed along to consumers (who are, in a 100%-unionized society, those very same union members) in the form of higher prices.

But I was just vaguely cynical because I thought maybe there was some productivity benefit to being in a union; maybe having a union bargain on your behalf lets you concentrate on doing your job, so you don't have to worry about raises or benefits or any of that stuff.

I was naive. I am now thoroughly cynical about unions.

Maybe if I was the full-time primary-breadwinner and Michele was a traditional stay-at-home-mom I would appreciate the job security and health benefits of the unionized job.

But I wasn't. I was working 24 hours a week and was already covered under Michele's health insurance.

Unions are progressive, so I kind of expected that maybe the union would support somebody like me who chose to work less to spend more time with their kids.

Maybe they would pro-rate union dues so that part-time workers paid less than full-time workers. Or maybe they'd have progressive dues, so that higher-paid techies (like me) would pay more than lower-paid secretaries.

Well... no. Dues is dues, and everybody pays the same, regardless of how much they make or how many hours they work.

Or maybe they'd work out a deal with UMass so that people who have health care coverage through their spouses could forgo duplicate coverage and get a share of the savings.

Well... no.

Or maybe they'd bargain so that the people who were the most productive were paid the most, so I'd be rewarded for doing a good job.

Hell no! During the state budget process I received a barrage of emails from the union encouraging me to contact my representatives and complain about proposals to increase merit pay at UMass.

But the thing that bothered me the most was the letter I received a while ago demanding that I either pay the union "agency fee" or be fired.

You see, I decided when I was hired not to join the union (yes, they put me on their lobbying mailing list nonetheless). Then, after working a year, I get a rather threatening letter, saying that I owed PSUMTA money because I'd decided not to join their organization.

"That can't be right," I thought to myself-- I've never heard of an "agency fee" and there was nothing in the employment contract with UMass about being required to pay the union. "Ignorance of the law is No Excuse!" -- so I did some digging in the Massachusetts General Laws, and learned that yes, indeed, if I wanted to keep my job at UMass I had to pay up.

According to the law, I wasn't supposed to get just a nasty-gram in the mail-- they were also supposed to send me information on exactly what the agency fee was for (they're not allowed to charge for any lobbying or political stuff that they do) and how to appeal it.

Unions are supposed to be looking after worker's rights, so it struck me as highly hypocritical of them not to follow the law as they threatened to have me fired.

Individually I found everybody I communicated with in the PSUMTA organization to be pleasant and helpful.

But collectively... it was like communicating with any other large bureaucracy. "I'm sorry, that can't be changed, it's just the way it is and it's been done that way for a long time."

Which, to my ears, translates as "We are the Borg. You will be assimilated."


Unknown said...

Actually Gavin, you've just quit the union to join the collective, because that's what most entrepreneurial ventures are! If you're really good, perhaps you and your collective team will rise to a level of power where the folks who are working for you say, hmm, we've got to find a way to mitigate those guys at the top who've got all the power. And so it goes. Hopefully when you're negotiating against the union representing YOUR workers, that union will have learned a thing or two about serving it's members and will be able to more effectively work you over!

Gavin Andresen said...

Nah, high tech won't go union any time soon, and my next entrepreneurial venture isn't going to be tire manufacturing.

MAYBE there'll eventually be something like the Screen Actor's Guild for techies, but I don't think so.

Larry Kelley said...

Yeah, I was a member of the Teamsters Union back in the day (working for UPS in Hartford) and I remember on late summer nights somebody in the next trailer yelling out "The only Union bigger than the Teamsters Union is the Soviet Union." (Goes to show how far back that was.)

And since I had tremendous benefits (medical, dental, optical and even LEGAL) plus the highest hourly rate in the nation for part-time work it was a pretty good gig (since I was also training and competing full time in sport karate that--like blogging--does not pay).

I used the work (loading and unloading packages) as a workout, I would routinely get yelled at by the Union Steward for
"working too hard."

Since I was doing the quota of two people he pointed out the Teamsters could make UPS hire another person at my exorbitant rate (one who would also pay full union dues.)