Why is the archaeological profession not more unionised?

Posted on April 24, 2017


‘Fellow archaeologists, I have a question for you: why is the archaeological profession not more unionized? It seems to me that this would be a promising strategy in helping to end the profession’s underpaid status.’

That is the question asked by Elie in the BAJR Facebook group. The question has elicited a range of responses, mainly anecdotes and guesses. It is a question I have heard before and that latter assumption- Unions means higher wages – is something I hear quite often from archaeologists however it is not exactly true. But, first let’s answer the question- why is Archaeology not more unionised?

Specifics- Location, Employer, etc.

This question was in relation to British Archaeology but could easily apply to other countries, like the USA. While not explicit the question is mainly referring to the private sector. Most archaeologists working for Governments (local/national) are members of Unions or at least have the option of joining a Union. The same goes for Universities, though in most cases Universities where archaeologists work tend to be public/government owned/operated so really all just government employees. This really only applies to the private sector in the UK, USA, and other countries where Unions are non-existent, or almost.

Where Unions Flourish

At first glance it would appear Archaeology would be a prime profession for Unionising. Unions flourish in professions that cannot be outsourced, like governments. A good portion of archaeological work can only be completed in-person at the archaeological site. Excavating in central London is not something that can be outsourced to China* so Commercial Archaeology/CRM should be ripe for Unionising.

However, it is other prerequisites that Archaeology falls short on. Unions work best in professions with a few big employers. That makes it easier to unionise across the whole sector and so no one company can get a competitive advantage by not being unionised i.e. offering cheaper products because they don’t have to pay their workers as much. Or countries that require sector wide negotiations with all employers instead of individual companies. Unions also work in professions where there is a high barrier to entry. This ensures that new companies that are not unionised can’t start up and steal the work.

It is in these areas that Archaeology fails miserably at.

Unions Not Legally Required in UK

To answer for the specific case of the UK- companies need to have at least 21 employees before they are required by law to recognise a Union. An employer can do so before they are that size voluntarily but why would they? In the UK most archaeology employers do not meet this requirement. Here is the distribution of the number of archaeologists employed by organisation, that responded to the survey, from the 2012-14 Profiling the Profession survey:

Numbers of archaeologists employed by individual commercial organisations.

Notice that the number of employers with over 21 employees is less than half of the total number of employers in the UK. There is a hard limit to penetration of Unions into the private sector, unless there is a significant change to how Archaeology is run.

Herd Protection

The United States does not have this minimum company size to form a Union, you just need at least two employees wanting to start a Union, so why are there no Archaeology Unions in the US? Because there the market is even more fragmented. By one estimation the largest private archaeology company in the US has 100 employees which means the market is full of even more smaller firms (Herr and Dore 2009). Of course this will differ between countries but in the UK and the US Unions tend to negotiate wages uncoordinated. That means that they undertake collective bargaining with one company, or even only one part of the company e.g. a particular manufacturing plant. Sector-wide collective bargaining rarely happens.

This has a massive impact on the effectiveness of Unions. With most bids won on a lowest price model in Archaeology the raising of pay rates will increase costs at a specific firm and cause them to lose bids. Possibly, the money for wages will have to come from somewhere and there might be some leeway with profit margins, efficiency gains, etc., but at a certain point higher wages will mean higher costs and in a lowest bid wins environment that will translate into less work/fewer jobs or the end of the company. So there will be a limit to what a Union can do at a specific employer unless they can negotiation with the whole sector i.e. everyone has the same labor costs and thus put in similarly priced bids. Because they can’t raise wages people will then not believe that Unions are worth the time. This creates a massive ‘chicken or the egg problem’. Why join a Union if it won’t increase wages right away? Unions can’t increase wages unless they can negotiate with all employers which requires everyone to join.

In practice, unionising that many companies is difficult but not impossible, except…

Undercutting and start up costs

Let’s assume that in the future there are a lot of mergers and we end up with only a couple of large archaeology employers and they are all unionised. That should fix that problem right?

Archaeology has a start-up cost problem… and a general barrier to entry problem… and quality control issue. What really hurts the chances of Unions is that even if they do get all the employers onboard then the companies can still be undercut for the majority of their work because of higher labor costs. Archaeology, as it is currently practised in most of the world and in most cases, especially in commercial settings, is very low tech.

Take the watching brief. You go out and watch a bulldozer strip away the top soil and you record anything that is found. What tools do you need?

  • Pen
  • Paper
  • Camera
  • Personal protection equipment e.g. high vis jacket, boots, etc.
  • Shovel/trowel
  • A computer to write up a report, etc.
  • Tap measure

Most people have a personal computer of some sort and a smart phone with a camera on it already. What is the cost of the other equipment? A Trowel – 15 $/£/euro  Paper- 2 £/$/euro High vis vest- 10 £/$/euro so on and so forth. Really, for less than $100, £100, 100 euro, whatever your currency is and what you already having lying around your house you can be a professional archaeologist. That is the cost of entry into the profession.

What about a car/truck/van? That is expensive. Yes and no. Any company would include the cost of buying or renting a vehicle in overhead costs. I know companies that only rent vehicles so this is not a start up cost it is a normal cost of work cost i.e. overhead. This lack of start-up costs means that pretty much anyone can become an archaeologist for almost nothing and they do. Each year there is a large cohort of start-ups or people becoming self-employed in Archaeology all the time.

I personally have seen a company lose a bid because there was a lower bid, by £20. Any company that can cut their costs by even a small percentage greatly increases their chances of getting bids. A new company with non-unionised workers will quickly get more bids than a company that has higher costs because they have higher wages negotiated by a Union. It becomes a giant game of wack-a-mole trying to unionise these new companies before they drive the unionised companies out of business.

Barrier to Entry Problem

Now, start-up costs are really a barrier to entry issue. That is, how easy it is for someone to enter into the profession, in this case, how easy it is to start an archaeology organisation/self-employed. Costs are one barrier but there are others. For example, there could be a barrier such as needing a permit to be an archaeologist, like what is sometimes required in the Western United States. However, for the most part there are very few barriers to entry in Archaeology.

This could be solved in several ways:

  1. A strong permitting system that makes it very hard to people to start a company;
  2. The quality of archaeology conducted goes up. What if every survey required a drone? That would mean several hundred for a drone and in the UK several thousand in requiring classes and fees to be a licensed pilot. Or that everything be lazer scanned- that’s 30k+ in costs to buy the scanner. If Archaeology got better and more high tech we would see fewer start-ups.

Self-employed and gaming the system and Quality Control

Let’s assume we have got to the point were there are only a few archaeology employers and there are barriers to entry, we would be set right?

Probably not, a recent trend in the UK has been for companies to “hire” technicians not as employees but as self-employed contractors. This has resulted in people with zero experience asking about how they can get a CSCS card. If you do not know to to get that card you do not have the experience to be self-employed but yet they are getting the “jobs”. These self-employed archaeologist are not employees and thus can not form a Union. What a wonderful loophole- cheap labor that can’t be unionised.

There is a solution to this- quality control. Experienced archaeologists would charge higher rates and inexperienced archaeologists would result in sub-par work that would result in fines or the work being rejected causing even more money and thus employers would not risk hiring inexperienced contractors for cheaper wages.

The problem with this is that in many countries there is no such mechanism for quality control. Yes, in theory in the UK there are local authority archaeologists that receive the reports and check them for quality. In the US, this is handled by different levels of government organisations National Park Service, SHPOs, etc. but in most countries they are overworked and have limited legal ability to punish poor quality work. Moreover, they rarely have the time to check work in person and when they do it is only for a short visit. When a report says nothing was found you have to trust the “archaeologist” that nothing was found. You would need much stronger quality control mechanisms, both monitoring and enforcement, to make this work.

The Mountains We Must Climb

All of this is not to say the task is not impossible but it will be very hard. We need to:

  • consolidate the profession
  • increase barriers to entry
  • create a strong enforcement system

Which brings me to probably the real reason Archaeology is not more unionised — some archaeologists are lazy blowhards. They love to bitch and complain but when push comes to shove they buckle in 0.01 seconds. Unions have a long and bloody history of failing. One of the few national holidays in the US, Labor Day, was created because of the massacre of workers. Throughout history most efforts to Unionise have been violently suppressed and many labor leaders killed. Yet, with those threats no longer hanging over our heads many an archaeologist still think its too much work. They would rather it was just there and they got higher wages, not actually have to do any work…. Unions don’t work that way.

Unions and Higher Pay?

‘It seems to me that this would be a promising strategy in helping to end the profession’s underpaid status.’

Unfortunately, the answer is no, having a Union does not guarantee higher wages- even if we fixed all three of those problems listed above. There are plenty of organisations that are unionised that have pay problems because the workers won’t strike or contribute to the Union. Having a Union will not result in higher wages. It is not a magic wand that can be waved to increase wages, it is only a start. For Unions to work people have to give time and they have to be willing to suffer for their fellow workers. You have to be willing to go on strike and lose pay to have any chance of increasing wages… which in my personal observations I see lacking from too many archaeologists.

Having a Union will not result in higher wages unless people put the work in.

Join a Union Now

I have laid out why they are not more Unions in Archaeology, also what we have to do to make them viable in places like the UK and US (and other countries). This may seem a bit depressing but these are not excuses but challenges that we need to rise up to.

I would like to end by encouraging people to join Unions, even if in the short term it will not increase wages. Unions are not just about higher wages. They also provide many other benefits such as various forms of insurance, training, etc. They also have the resources to sue companies for bad practices. For example, let’s say an employer was not paying you the correct wages- a civil matter. You could sue them to get back the wages they owe you but unless you have 10s of thousands of dollars, pounds, euros, etc. you are not going to win. Unions will do that for you and use their resources to pay for the lawyers. No one else will do this for you.

Unions are about workers rights and benefits which will including money covers everything. People will complain about Unions not increasing wages and fair enough, as laid out above it is unlikely they will be able to do that any time soon, but they have other benefits. Moreover, now is the time to unionise, when companies are small. Most countries have a set limit of how many employees have to say they want to unionise before it becomes legally enforceable. It is much easier to reach that number when you can talk to all the employees. When companies get bigger and have multiple offices it becomes much harder. If you believe Unions will lead to higher wages than now is the time to join, not later as it will be much harder then.

This is not to gloss over the problems with Unions e.g. political entanglements, mob ties in the US, and a whole host of other issues. But, these are membership organisations and being a member means that you can help fix these problems. If you don’t like what Unions do than join one and fix the problem you see with it. Kind of like what we need to do to fix problems in Archaeology…


Herr, Sarah and Dore, Christopher D. 2009. Measuring CRM. Presented at the 74th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. Atlanta, GA.

* Some tasks could be outsource like report writing and maybe tasks like making maps with GIS but not excavation/watching briefs/surveys.

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