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Another random, semi-self-evident insight

April 11, 2012

Picture a child, about seven years old. Maybe it’s your own child, maybe it’s the child of a visiting relative or friend. Anyway, the child is being a nuisance and you just told it* to behave. The kid clearly doesn’t like being told off. It hisses through clenched teeth: “I’ll kill you!” Do you feel threatened? My guess is not. My guess is that most people would either just laugh it off, or tell the child to not talk like that.

But suppose the conflict wasn’t with a little kid, but with a grownup. Your neighbour, say. If your neighbour would hiss “I’ll kill you!” after a nasty fight, with no hint of it being a joke, most people would feel weird and uncomfortable. Some people would even report it to the police.

And if it were a police officer who told you, in the course of duty, that you would be killed for having the wrong ethnicity or religion or whatnot? That’s the kind of thing people flee across continents for. That’s the kind of thing that constitutes sufficient reason to be granted refugee status.

How we value actions and threats depends a good deal on what power we percieve the actor** to have.

And once we realized that, we can go on to the truly interesting point I wanted to make: somebody who percieves the relative power situation in a conflict differently than I do, will have a different view on how to value actions and threats performed.

Case in point: the Vaxholm conflict (link in Swedish). In 2004, the local council hired a Latvian construction company named Laval un Partneri to renovate a school. The Swedish Construction Workers’ Union (“Byggnads”) complained that the Latvian workers didn’t have any collective agreement. Laval then signed a collective agreement with a Latvian workers’ union, where it was agreed that the workers would be getting 13 700 SEK/month plus food and lodging. 13 700 SEK/month, at a 40 h work week, equals an hourly wage of 85,65 SEK. Byggnads complained that the salary was way to low, and demanded the company sign a collective agreement with them instead, at 145 SEK/h (no info on whether food and lodging should also be provided, or if the workers would be expected to pay this for themselves). For comparison, average*** salary for a construction worker in Sweden at the time was 133 SEK/h (again, no info on the food-and-lodging issue). Laval refused. The Swedish workers’ union blockaded the construction site, to the point of driving the company bankrupt.

Me, the newspapers I was reading, and the European Court of Justice (this link is in English!) all agreed that Byggnads were being unreasonable. People and newspapers located more on the political left, on the other hand, thought that it was a scandal that the European Court of Justice could decide against Byggnads, it was a blow to workers and workers’ unions everywhere, and the first step onto the slippery slope into serfdom.

I couldn’t understand this view. It was obvious to me that what we were dealing with was the little disadvantaged company from the ex-Soviet Union whose employees were perfectly content, and which was being crushed by the big powerful monolith of the Swedish worker’s unions. (I was over twenty years old when I learned that workers’ unions aren’t government departments, but private organizations.)

And now I’ll have to commit the internet sin of not linking to the articles I’m talking about. I forgot to bookmark them, and can’t find them again. Anyway, something like a month ago, I read a very harshly worded debate article, written by a leader of a Swedish workers union. I dismissed it as the usual whining from the powerful when they don’t have all the power they want. And then, later in the same week, I read a newspaper article from the US. And suddenly, I understood where the Swedish debate article came from. Suddenly, all the harsh words made sense.

This is not to say that I agreed. I still think the Swedish worker’s unions are quite powerful, and should be careful about using coercion because of that fact. But I now understand that they see themselves as comparatively powerless, and their actions and rhetorics as justified by that lack of power.

*There is no good way out regarding which pronoun to use. The grammatically correct “it” is seen in some circles as demeaning (“a child is not a thing!”). “He/she” is a construction to be avoided. Picking either “he” or “she” means I’m not being gender neutral any more, which is also a bad thing. Sigh.

** “Actor” as in “person performing action”, not as in Christian Bale or Johnny Depp.

*** The Swedish word used in the Wikipedia article (“genomsnittslön”) hints that the average we are talking about is the arithmetic mean, but it’s not a sure thing.

  1. considering that the average pay for a swedish construction worker isn’t much to boast with, and that the only protection the swedish construction workers have against getting thrown out of the competition for jobs is that the union protects their rights, the poor little company from latvia – probably at least partly owned by venture capitalists from all over europe – wasn’t just one poor little company, but the potential start of the end of a regulated workmarket in sweden.

    the council has to choose the bidder with the lowest price, and when firms from estonia, latvia etc turn up with excruciatingly low bids, and house their staff in concentrationcamp-like boxes on the building-site itself (i don’t want to think about what kind of food they’re fed), it’s not a question of the poor people of latvia rising up against the silly old unions of sweden. on the opposite, what the union is doing is that they’re sending a strong message to the venture capitalists who strive to lower the prizes on labor in western europe, that they’re not going to take it. latvian business or not, in sweden you have to pay swedish salaries. no matter if your hiring latvian workers or not.

    that’s a very good principle.

  2. I don’t think 133 SEK/h is a bad salary. Back before became unemployed, I used to work as a university researcher, earning the same. And I have five years of student loans to pay back.

    On the rest of your points, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  3. just because you’ve had a low salary, doesn’t mean it’s not a low salary. try buying a flat in the capital city region or raising a family with that kind of money, it’s not much.

    and it’s a bit different situation for blue collar jobs as the construction worker doesn’t have the option of making a career and going from the newly graduated researcher who’s just started paying back his/her student loan to making loads of cash after obtaining a position in let’s say a medical company. the construction worker will probably never double his income or anything of the kind, he/she might perhaps get some bonuses if he/she’s a good worker. and some of them might get happy and become a foreman at the shift and earn a bit more.

  4. Good point about the career opportunities. Hadn’t thought of that.

    And the “things I can’t afford”, sometimes mentioned on this very blog, actually refers to starting a family. Even if it’s not so much because of lack of money, as lack of job security. I’ve never had a job contract without a time limit in my life, and neither has my husband. I think that’s currently a bigger problem than salary levels, at least on my level. I’d rather claim that people who earn much more than me are earning too much, than that I used to earn too little. A friend of mine is a secretary, works full-time, and still doesn’t earn much more than half of what I used to pull in. That’s what I consider a low salary.

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