The Economics of Archaeology Part 2: Why Unions Won’t Save You

Posted on February 14, 2013


In part one of this series (rant?) I discussed how loosening up wage controls will not prevent undercutting, mainly because under cutting has nothing to do with wages and everything to do with not finding any archaeology. I am quite happy as some people have already commented and made some suggestions, a good one was:

An alternative that I support is for contracting agencies/clients to provide CRM contractors with a defined scope and assumptions to bid on. This way, everyone bids on finding the same number of things and working at the same pace. There are very few US agencies that do this, but it works well and promotes quality of work over price.

I would say a much better suggestion than mine and eliminates those who will still try to pull a fast one on my system. However, later in the series I will mention the idea of quality of work and how such a system may or may not work.

Moving on to the holy grail of diggers/shovelbums discussions about better wages, The Union. Now mention poor wages among archaeologists and not too long into the conversation (usually 30 secs. in) someone brings up the idea of a union. Well to be fair, archaeologists in the UK have two unions and one was tried and failed in the mid-1990’s in the US. Needless to say neither the two unions or the failed union has improved archaeology wages.

Before moving on it is important to note that archaeologists in management positions are not anti-union, well some are but that is more ideological based than anything else. In fact, management would welcome a union. What? Your Kidding? Nope, remember the multiplier  from the first part in the series? Remember how part of it contains a company fee? Well that fee translates into profit. A simple fact of life is that 5% of 100,000 is a lot more than 5% of 20,000 (math, it’s like magic). All archaeologists want to pay higher wages as that increase both their pay and how much they can get out of a project. They can also justify their higher rates, “look man the diggers are unionized, I have to charge you this much”. What management does not want to do is pay twice the price as their competitors for wages and lose all their contracts. Unfortunately, when unions don’t encompass all workers that is what ends up happening.   Thus a chicken and the egg conundrum occurs in which no one wants to be the first one to give into the union.

Now people like the idea of a union for various reasons, nostalgia, they actually believe it will help, etc. but almost no one looks at how unions work. For a group concerned about the past we sure do not pay to much attention to it. A union is a group of workers who band together to demand higher wages, what’s not to like. What people fail to remember is that almost every single union that has ever existed has been broken. For a union to work you have to be in a position to demand higher wages. This means you have to be in a position were you can not be replaced. There are several ways to do this, one is to be at a location where only a certain resource exists (e.g. some cases of rare earth metal mining). Two is to poses a skill that no one else can do. Three, is to do a job no one else wants to do.

On this front there is some good news and some bad news…. actually it’s all bad, sorry. Archaeologists do not have any sort of special skills. What? I can name off 200 skills we have, there is x, and y, oh and of course z, blah, blah, blah. Now I don’t mean to disparage anyone or any of the work archaeologists do. The fact of the matter though is that CRM/commercial archaeology, as currently dictated by most laws in the US, UK, etc., only requires good enough, not great. Yes, a great shot of trench 2b really captures the stratigraphy of the site but will a photo in the wrong sunlight cause the report to be rejected, no. Most of the great work done by archaeologists could have easily been completed to the bear minimum and still pass.

Moreover, archaeology is in a bad position in that we destroy our work. If so and so misses the complex stratigraphy it does not matter because by the time the report happens the bulldozers have already erased it all. Unless you have a SHPO, BLM, or council archaeologists checking every context sheet at every site (I don’t see it happening) we are reliant on ourselves to say we did a poor job. In other words, it is very very hard to reward great work and discourage bad. This means that any special skills we may have a degraded down to the lowest common acceptable form, which means anyone can do it.

Case in point, before the great recession I worked with a guy who had absolutely no training, no field school, no degree, no archaeology classes, nothing. He had saw an advertisement for archaeology assistant and thought he was going to literally be someone’s assistant. He thought he might have to fetch water for an archaeologists so he applied. Being, pre-August 2008, people were talking about making field tech positions permanent (it’s true check shovelbum job adds from that summer) and there was not enough archaeologists in the state to do all the work, so he was hired on (he was the first one let go when the recession hit). To be honest he wasn’t bad, he wasn’t good, but that was to be expected from someone who had zero training. However, through it all he did a competent job for someone with no background.

Have you ever been to a field school outside of the UK or US or Australia or Western Europe? Chances are if you have there are three types of workers, the archaeologists (maybe two or tree), the students, and the locals. Most of the digs will hire local diggers to do most of the heavy work, just like the antiquarians. With students of course, but basically the same concept as archaeology in the 1930s, 40s, 50s? 60s?. Hire some locals to handle most of the work, and they do (probably better than the students).  It worked back then, it works today, and it will work if anyone ever gets serious about unionizing.

As it stands currently, commercial archaeology (almost all archaeology) does not involve enough complex machinery (EDM, trained in an hour) or mathematics (triangles to get a square is about all you need to know) often enough to not default to simple tasks requiring the bare minimum of competence. At the same time our universities are pumping out thousands of people interest in working in archaeology every year. Or as my experience demonstrates, anyone who things that an archaeologist assistant sounds like a cool job.

In these conditions a union will never last as it does not have any of the requirements needed: no one wants to do it, special skills, geographic limitations (did not touch as this one but for the most part there are not unique geographic conditions that limit archaeology).  Essentially, a union is a pipe dream that will never happen. Yes, if everyone organizes it will work but all it takes is one out of  15,000 in the US or 1 in 5,000 to break and not hire unionized workers. Heck is does not even have to be an archaeologists, just someone who thinks they could do the same job (have seen non-archaeologists try to do it before). Can your union really stand up to those odds?

However, there is something called a guild. Sometimes when you hear people describe a union it sounds an awful lot like a guild. A guild is a group of people that controls the practice of a craft. A good example of a guild would be lawyers in the US. You can only become a lawyer and practice law by passing the bar association examination. Most lawyers have to join their bar association. Oh, and you have to go to a university program approved by the bar association. The lawyers guild controls all aspects of the process and as a result they charge $200, $300, $5000 an hour for their work. That example is a little misleading as they don’t charge for all the hours they work but no one would say lawyers are paid poorly, even if it’s not that great.

Guilds have their draw backs, for example not everyone can get in (so much for public archaeology). They are not bullet proof, already lawyers are coming under pressure to out source their work to cheaper paralegals.  They can be quite ruthless against anyone who speaks out or has a dissenting view (remind you of Germany 1942?). However, one thing they do tend to deliver on is better wages. They violate all the rules needed for a union to survive: lots of people want in, there is no geographic limitation, and there skills can quite easily be replaced. Yet, they control who can practice their craft and by doing this they can control the money.

Now let us imagine a world were only 500 people could practice archaeology. Imagine if there were jokes like, “Why did Jesus walk on water? Because it was easier than becoming an archaeologists.  Why there would not be enough archaeologists to do all the work. People would have to wait years to get their projects completed, unless of course they paid more to get it done sooner.

That is one way for wages to increase, a more probable method than trying to form a union. However, for that to happen archaeologists need to start to get straight up Machiavellian. They would have to form an organization and that organization would then have to get SHPOs, Council Archaeologists, etc. to accept that the only people that can do archaeology are members of that organization. This might actually require the rewriting of laws, no easy task (but lawyers and doctors have done it). Then, once that is done, that organization would have to limit who could get in and probably kick some people out, feelings will be hurt. If your in the UK and know all the bitching and squabbling that goes on with the IfA now (UKs profession archaeology body) just imagine what would happen if they actually had power. Also, there is no guarantee that this organization would include you my dear diggers/shovelbums, we can hope but as I said,  Machiavellian. It might not also include some of those who set it up, again Machiavellian.

That my friends is one way you improve wages. It is not the only way but it is more probable then a union.

Next- the cheap coffee and why your boss is not a bastard, well maybe not.

Postscript- A while back I looked at wages and did some comparisons of wages against factors like number of archaeology programs, federal land, etc. to explain why wages were higher in the western US. Looking at the data now it would indicate a sort of guild setup. Few schools to provide archaeologists. Secretary of the Interiors requirement that the project archaeologists had an MA couple with lots of government land. Also, strong permitting rules in some states e.g. NM you have to have 45 days survey and 20 days excavation under an already permitted archaeologist in different quadrants of the state before you can be permitted to work there, almost like an apprenticeship. It all combines to look like a very weak guild but one that does raise wages. A fact noted by Chris Dore on those posts-

“I take a bit more of an economic perspective on the issue. In the West, the ability to work in a supervisory position on all but private land is tied to obtaining a permit from the appropriate agency. In the West the permits tend, particularly in some areas, to require experience in geographically small areas and can be difficult to obtain. Additionally, permits are tied to individuals, not directly to firms.

In the East, it is generally fairly easy for archaeologists to move around and work in different areas. Thus, in the East archaeologists are more interchangeable. They are more of a commodity. Economically, with commodities, price converges on cost. In the West, archaeologists aren’t as interchangeable. If a company wants to work in a certain area, they must employ a permitable person. Getting this permitable person comes at a premium which companies are willing to pay. Overall this results in higher salaries and, I think, explains the salary differences between East and West.”