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."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Florence Savings Bank Wins Again

I didn't realize how much I take money for granted until coming here to Australia. A lot of economic concepts like exchange rates affecting imports and exports are suddenly very real; while we're here, we're importing Australian stuff and experiences into ourselves, and paying for it with US dollars.

I performed a little experiment the other day to get a handle on another economic concept that's affecting me personally: transaction costs. Every time I move money from the US to Australia transaction fees are tacked on, and it's not easy to figure out who's charging what. Sure, your credit card company will tell you about any fixed fees, but how do you know you're getting a good exchange rate?

So I stood at an ATM machine and withdrew $150 Australian dollars from my Florence Savings Bank checking account and got another $150AUD using my SchwabOne visa card. Then I went home and calculated how much it would've cost me to move money from my US PayPal account to my Australian PayPal account (yeah, they have PayPal and Eby here down under), and checked my statements to see how much that $150AUD cost me in US dollars. Results:

$150AUD cost me $123.23USD via Florence Savings
$150AUD cost me $125.29USD via Schwab
$150AUD would cost $129.61USD via PayPal

So, my little local bank wins!

I got the Schwab visa card just to come to Australia, because it has no foreign currency cash advance fee (most credit cards do).

I was surprised PayPal was the most expensive option; their transaction fee is low ($1.50AUD), but their exchange rate isn't very good (or at least wasn't very good on the day I did the experiment).

Now, if only the exchange rate would start heading in the right direction...