Some time ago Mike’s post on the Toronto Garbage Strike struke a cord with readers and generated 85 comments. A large amount of the discussion focused on unions (from a philosophical perspective more than that specific union or strike). One comment that had a particularly interesting part to it (from semi-frequent commenter Brendan) focused on the idea that being jealous of someone for their job is silly, if you think their job is so much better than yours, switch to it!
My brother used to get this a lot. People at the job site where he worked would rant about how good he has it. After listening to them rant, he’d say that they’re hiring for his position, and encourage the person to apply. At that point the person would either point out a part of the job they wouldn’t want to do, or admit they didn’t have the academic credentials to do it. The pregnant silence afterwards hopefully led some of his co-workers to an understanding: There’s a reason why jobs offer the benefits they do, it’s all a trade-off.
One of my uncles, by marriage, is always going on about what a sweet deal teachers have in Canada (it’s actually a very well paid and respected profession in Canada). He loves to have people listen to him talk, so he makes stuff up. He’s a high school drop out and wasn’t able to get through the academic requirements needed to teach, so now he gripes about those who have managed to actually become teachers. As an armchair psychologist, it’s pretty clear to me that he complains about teachers out of bitterness that they are able to earn a living doing what he wishes he could.
I read an interesting article some time ago that made the assertion that students are quite savvy at choosing college majors. Even if industry and government is saying there are lots of jobs in an industry (or that their will be), the “wisdom of crowds” kicks in and students tend to move to areas where the high paying careers actually are. If a genuinely sweet deal appears (such as computer workers during the dot-com boom), massive numbers of people get trained for this career, flood the market, and drop the salary down to a more appropriate level. Similarly, if there’s a job no one wants to do, eventually market pressure forces companies that need those skills to pay top dollar to get them (like Cobol programmers).
The only time this doesn’t happen is when you get a barrier to entry for a specific field. This was one part of Brendan’s comment that I felt was somewhat misleading, it isn’t like we can all go sign up with CUPE tomorrow. Typically union jobs are tough to get (sometimes going to the children of senior union members). A large number of people would be willing to do the work the strikers were refusing to do, even at a lower pay rate. But they weren’t able to.
At the opposite end of the employment spectrum you have a similar situation with Canadian doctors. I was in pre-med for my first couple of years at university, and my classes were PACKED with smart, eager kids who wanted to get into medical school (and become doctors). The extremely limited number of positions at Canadian medical schools meant that the majority wouldn’t get in. Similarly there are hordes of foreign trained doctors who would love to come and practice in Canada, but quotas restrict the number that can actually enter to a fraction of applicants. The argument supporting the limited number of positions (to train new doctors or admit foreign M.D.s) is to ensure high standards and protect the health of Canadians. If this was actually why there were doing it, they’d have a minimum entrance requirement, then admit EVERYONE who was above this. Clearly the goal is to actually restrict the number of jobs and, like the unions, provide superior benefits to those in the field.
Feel free to make snarky comments that I’m only dogging doctors since I didn’t become one :-).
If us computer workers had gotten protections for our jobs we might have been able to keep the gravy train flowing after the dot-com bust (and perhaps avoided the whole offshoring situation). I think computer people are far too free-market oriented to unionize (or put other barriers in place to protect their jobs). I certainly am.