When Labour Union Idealism Backfires

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 Liège, 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.

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13 thoughts on “When Labour Union Idealism Backfires

  1. Hi, I’m not sure that I agree that unions are of no use to people working within archaeology due to the over-supply of labour within the sector. Unions don’t just function to negotiate new conditions with employers, but also to ensure that existing conditions / obligations are being met at a group and individual level. For example, a long while ago I worked on an archaeological site which had only two chemical toilets for over 100 people. It was only when the union became involved that we were able to ensure our employer (a local council) met their obligations under health and safety legislation; this is becuase the union had access to the lawyers and expertise in legislation that we, as individuals, lacked and were able to make a strong case. Also, I know of cases, where union expertise in employment law and legislation has insured that individuals have been able to exercise their existing rights or, in one case, succesfully take a former employer to court for constructive dismissal. More generally, certainly over here, many archaeologist work for bodies such as local government or higher education, within which the archaeologist represent just one part of a much larger workforce, and wage negotiation carried out by a union is more succesful. The key problem is with the unionisation (or other form of worker organisation) within commercial archaeological companies, where the short term contracts and seasonal nature of the job, as well as the competitive tendering system which structures most British archaeology, means that the over-supply of labour combined with its rapid turnover means it is difficult to succesfully demand better wages and conditions


  2. Good points, Dave. I should have qualified that: seeing as I have no employer four days of the week, I currently have no use for a union. But were I to get a somewhat permanent position somewhere, then I might join the union again.


  3. If you only support “reasonable” unions, then you don’t really support unions very much. I think you have a reasonable deal, but you think you deserve better. It’s for you, not me, to decide what’s reasonable for you.

    It’s in your interest to ask for more than an uninterested bystander thinks is reasonable. Otherwise, you can reason yourself into a lousy deal, in return for which you will receive nothing more than the useless approval of the bystander.


  4. Saying that the Latvian workers were there because they accepted lower wages is precisely the point of a union getting involved.

    A union functions to give workers power they ordinarily will never, ever have in negotiating with employers. There are only a tiny, tiny number of professions that have what is essentially a labor shortage — in which case an individual has some leverage in negotiating wages and conditions.

    But ordinarily you don’t have much leverage, because as a worker you do not have complete information (you don’t know what wages others will accept) and unlike capital, you cannot move instantly to take a job anytime, anywhere. I might get offered a good position someplace, but if it costs me more to move there then I am out of luck.

    In the case of the Latvian workers, the problem is that a common tactic on the part of owners is to find a group that will take less. You can then use that against other workers. It is especially useful if this group has no access to local laws, as is the case with many immigrants in the US. You can basically do whatever you want to them, and force wages down. The Swedish union took exactly the right approach in saying that every worker, no matter where from, deserves the same local wages and rules. That depresses the demand for a permanent underclass, you see. Now, the companies could threaten to move (and they do) but for jobs such as construction that is rather less easy to do.

    The line that they wouldn’t have had obs at all had they not accepted lower wages is a red herring. Any job can always be done cheaper — I can always find someone more desperate. That is why we have certain worker protections in the first place! I mean, we once imported slaves here in the US, saying that unless we had slaves the cotton would have not gotten picked is simply silly, and morally repugnant as well.

    Asking that the foreign PhD students get paid the same as locals strikes me as a pretty good investment as PhD students do a lot of really good work, and making it harder for them to do so doesn’t strike me as helpful to their professors. Sweden is expensive. If I have to live like an ascetic to get a PhD there, or moonlight at a second job, how does that help me be a productive researcher?

    Now granted, I am looking at this from the US, where worker protections are much less robust than in Sweden.


  5. For once, you’re completely in the wrong here, Martin. Jesse explains it well. The whole point about worker organisations is to make sure workers are paid reasonable wages and that wages are not set according to the lowest bidder. Either you believe in equal pay for equal work, or you believe that Supply and Demand is the road to happiness. If the latter, fine, but then you were never on the workers’ side.


  6. I don’t believe that supply & demand is the road to happiness. I do believe that it is an inescapable reality. If we were to stipulate that every PhD student in Sweden must find funding to a standard Swedish level, then this would mean that people from poorer non-EU countries would have to quit coming here to study. And there is nothing in the research funding system that would support a reform leading to higher expenditure without any increased productivity, if we were to subsidise the foreign students. Not a realistic demand.


  7. Fully agree with Martin here. During my six years living in Sweden I came into contact with trade unions several times and on each occasion I got the impression that their task was to make it as hard for foreigners to live in the country as possible while at the same time not explicitly breaking European and international laws. Yet as the Vaxholm case shows, they do sometimes break these laws.

    My first cautionary contact with a Swedish trade union was with the Electricians’ Union. My ex-partner and I wanted a washing machine in the kitchen (which is common in the UK but not in Sweden) and we needed an extra electricity socket installed. I rang different electricians to find the cheapest quote. Surprised that they all gave the same price I asked why no one negotiated. One electrician said, “The union sets the tariff. We all apply it”.

    For my first two and a half years in Sweden, I worked as a cleaner while I was learning the language, which I speak fluently. I was advised to join the Cleaners’ Union, so that I would be entitled to unemployment insurance if I was made redundant, which I reluctantly did. But when I left the job voluntarily to study, I wasn’t allowed to leave the union. It discouraged me from leaving a blue collar job to move to a white collar one and I paid its fees for a whole year as a student.

    One of the options I considered whilst in Sweden was becoming an English language teacher. This wasn’t such a crazy idea, since I have a BA in English and American Lit from a British university. It was a career I had considered in the UK before moving to Sweden. The Swedish Teachers’ Union, however, demands that all English language teachers, even those whose native language is English, must study English at a Swedish university. To be taught your native language by a foreign institution is a bit much!

    As a British citizen who qualified as a librarian in Sweden, I found it impossible to get a job there. I found the trade unions much more interested in safeguarding the salaries, pensions, benefits and working conditions of their existing members, rather than developing professions and nurturing talent. So as a young, newly qualified professional I applied for jobs in both countries.

    My success rate in getting job interviews in the UK was 33%. In Sweden it was 2%. Part of this difference, I explain by the strong position Swedish trade unions enjoy. Their representatives, who sit on selection panels for interview, have the function of gatekeepers to professions. To a greater extent than in the UK they assign jobs to natives while foreigners are considered reserve labour.


  8. Martin, I don’t follow your reasoning. Posit that a university department has to pay equal wages to PhD students, regardless of if they’re foreign or Swedish, why should that exclude foreign students per se? One would imagine —absent prejudice—that given two students, the most qualified is chosen, independent of their country of origin.
    You can argue that given the choice of one expensive student and two cheap ones, the department will get more research done out of the two cheap ones. Maybe. But then it makes sense for the university to get rid of benefits for all students, since that gives them a larger choice of cheap students. (And I’m sure you’re well aware that universities do their level best to get around paying employment benefits to PhD students, no matter where they are from.)
    So really, unless you seriously propose that Chinese PhD students don’t need health benefits, child support etc, to the same extent as Swedish ones, I don’t see that you have much of an argument.


  9. I believe you’ve got it backwards, Kai. The foreign PhD students are not simply cheap labour. They come for free, because they are paid by their home countries. This means that they do not compete with domestic candidates for the paid positions in a lab. They compete at home for that country’s money and then they go abroad. So a foreign PhD student does not in fact have the same employer as a domestic one working at the same Swedish lab.

    Is it Sweden’s responsibility to make sure that Uganda’s ambassador in Stockholm has the same salary as the United States’ ambassador?

    Anyway, foreign students will soon have to pay university fees here. This will make Sweden a much less attractive place to study. So the issue is already pretty much settled.


  10. Hm, apparently there are multiple categories of foreign students involved, the ones I’m personally acquainted with are definitely paid by the university department they work at, but then preferrably with stipends rather than proper salaries, or using other devious bookkeeping tricks.


  11. Yes, this discussion is separate from the students who apply for Swedish doktorandtjänst and studiebidrag. The opinion piece I linked to concerns people who show up at a lab with a Guatemalan doktorandtjänst and say “Hey guys, I have funding, can I spend it here?”.


  12. Which in essence then amounts to: “Hi, I will attempt to live in Sweden for four+ years on a Guatemalan salary and no security!”. I’d feel very uncomfortable working alongside someone who did not enjoy the same rights as I had.

    This feels like another example of third world exploitation, the university getting its work done for free… It could be claimed that the students will then go back to their home country and spread the superior knowledge imparted to them, but really, that feels so condescending.

    Do we have any evidence that the eventual benefits these students get outweighs the cost to them? (And I don’t think “Well, they keep coming, don’t they?” is sufficient evidence in and of itself.)


  13. Do we have any evidence that the eventual benefits these students get outweighs the cost to them?

    I don’t know in the case of fields such as engineering, and I am absolutely certain that the answer is no in archaeology.

    But the PhD students do keep showing up with Guatemalan funding. In essence, they are being sent here by their governments to get an education and then return home. And I am sure that if Sweden somehow began to cover the difference between that and a Swedish doktorandtjänst, then such money would not be forthcoming in large enough quantities to allow anywhere near as many foreign PhD students to study here as currently.

    The union demands, if implemented, would simply close the door to most of the prospective students.


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