I support labour unions. Worker solidarity is the only way to keep wages above the barest subsistence level when you’re working for an employer who wishes to maximise profit. I haven’t been a union member myself for many years, though. The reason is that there is nothing a union can do for me. On an over-saturated labour market there is no way to organise a large enough percentage of the work-force to get any traction in negotiations with the employers. For each archaeologist who makes demands, there are always ten newly graduated young ones eager to work for peanuts. No union can improve our conditions before archaeologists become a scarce resource. Supply and demand.
The relationship between employers and employees is regulated through negotiation. Nobody forces them to offer us jobs, and nobody forces us to offer them labour. We need to seek the middle ground. And so, a labour union has to make pragmatically realistic demands and present them in a correct medium.
I don’t know if the demands put forward by brewery workers in LiÃ¨ge, Belgium, are pragmatically realistic. But I really laughed when I read about their tactics: learning that Anheuser-Busch is planning to reduce their European work-force by a tenth, the workers took the factory bosses hostage! Does anyone imagine that such an act will improve their situation? It’ll just get a few of those 10% thrown into jail instead of just sacked. Stupid bastards.
Then I read about some union demands closer to home. They’re eminently well presented: as reasoned opinion pieces in newspapers and on-line. But the demands look completely unrealistic to me.
For many decades (though it will change soon), foreign students have been able to study for free at Swedish universities – no term fees, just apply with the right qualifications and you’re good to go. This has also gone for PhD students. They have been funded from their home countries, usually at a level way below that of a fully funded native PhD student. And so the PhD students at a university department have had quite radically different living conditions. Funded by Sweden, you’re quite an affluent person. Funded by China, not so much. Most of the foreign students are funded by their home countries on the express condition that they return home after graduation.
Now the doctoral candidates committee of the Swedish Association of University Teachers is demanding that foreign PhD students be paid as much as native ones. This suggests that they don’t know how research projects are organised and funded. It’s tantamount to demanding either that the bodies that fund Sweden’s scientific research suddenly accept much less bang for the project buck, or that Swedish researchers quietly quit accepting applications from overseas students to join their labs. In the former case, since these PhDs have to leave Sweden after graduation, what the union advocates is actually a form of foreign aid funded with research money. But more likely, these people simply wouldn’t get a chance to study in Sweden at all.
This is exactly the same situation as when the Builders’ Union blockaded a school construction site in Vaxholm near Stockholm in 2004 on the grounds that the non-unionised Latvian workers there weren’t paid Swedish-level wages. Even if this was really done in the best interest of the Latvians (and it almost certainly wasn’t), it was a completely unrealistic way to support them. The Latvians were there because they accepted lower wages. If they had demanded Swedish wages, they wouldn’t have had a job in Sweden at all. Supply and demand. And as long as Chinese PhD students find the quality of free Swedish education acceptable, they will continue to come with their meagre funding – if we still let them in.