Archaeologists in Quebec Are About to Sign Their First-Ever Collective Bargaining Agreement

Quebecois archeologists will soon ink their very first collective bargaining agreement. We don't associate archaeological workers with unions, but there's no reason archaeologists can't organize, too.

Several members of Quebec's archaeologist union. (SNAQ-CSN)

On June 18, 2022, union members from the Syndicat national des archéologues du Québec (SNAQ) voted for the adoption of a tentative agreement that will frame further bargaining proceedings with their employers. The adoption and signing of the agreement shows just how far cultural resource management (CRM) archaeologists have come in understanding — and agitating for — their labor rights. The agreement is a sign that CRM workers in Quebec are ready to put the last fifty years of poorly regulated and privatized archaeological practice in the rear window.

The members officially founded their first sector-wide union and elected their first executive committee in March 2020, following a three-year workplace self-organization process. This transformed a fragmented and dispersed workforce into a collective one. However, the members do not yet have a collective agreement, and what was signed was only agreed upon by three out of Quebec’s ten accredited archaeological firms. There is still much work to be done.

CRM Archaeology

Archaeology as a scholarly discipline certainly enjoys widespread recognition. It dwells on past peoples’ practices, beliefs, and customs through careful excavation and complex conceptual frameworks. It relies on highly advanced technological innovations (e.g., ancient DNA, isotopic analyses) to further expand the scope of what archaeologists can perceive and infer from often fragmentary data. It helps protect endangered and fragile heritage. But in practice, it also rests on often highly unequal power relations. CRM archaeologists might be among the lowest on the practice’s power-relation scale.

CRM underwent intense development during the 1970s. Confronted with the increased and uncontrolled heritage destruction that accompanied the expansion of infrastructural projects (road, dams, buildings, mines), archaeologists had to adapt their tools to work within the shortened time schedules and high demand. This task was made all the more difficult by the fact that universities were no longer in a position to provide the level of support they had in the past.

With less support and tighter timetables, field methodologies and institutions were reshaped to accomplish more with less. In the 1970s, Quebec saw the creation of private archaeological firms, a professional association, cultural and environmental laws, and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. This professional infrastructure was developed in order for archaeologists to assume the stewardship of the province’s archaeological heritage.

Today, CRM employs most of the archaeological workforce in North America. It is mainly focused with environmental impact studies: how development projects will alter and destroy archaeological heritage, and how best to salvage this heritage in advance of the bulldozers. Private companies are central actors in the field.

In Quebec, various laws regulate the practice (the Cultural Heritage Act, the Regulation respecting occupational health and safety, the Environment Quality Act, and the Civil Code of Québec). However, impact studies are commissioned by various clients who, for the most part, follow the lowest-bidder rule when selecting archaeological contractors. To win a bid within these parameters, contractors need to lower costs as much as possible. They juggle wages, health and safety regulations, various crucial material necessities — like access to drinkable water and toilets — with the time afforded to sample the area that will be impacted by a client’s project. Out of roughly 250 archaeologists working in the province, there are approximately a dozen archaeological firms, twenty CRM employers, and 150 CRM workers.

Research conducted in Canada, Japan, Australia, and France has shown that the privatized management of archaeology has severely affected job security and quality of work. Wages are consistently low, and there is no health insurance coverage or pension plans. For a vast majority of archaeologists, employment is contractual and seasonal, and sampling time is short. There is seldom any follow-up to a broader audience as artifacts are stockpiled — which are seldom made available to a broader, public audience — with little to no additional analyses, and in sometimes detrimental conservation conditions.

Having worked in CRM archaeology since 2006, I have had a front-row seat from which to watch CRM archaeologists come together and marry their isolated concerns to broader demands. There have been tragic lessons along the way, such as the 2010 death of a fellow archaeologist in Montreal due to disregard for health and safety regulations. The low wages CRM archeologists were forced to endure also had the effect of creating workplace solidarity. But until recently, the nature of workplace conditions seemed ironclad — a reality that could not be changed, only avoided or endured while waiting for better days or other professional opportunities.

CRM Workers’ Self-Organization

During the spring and summer of 2012, Quebec was in turmoil. The Maple Spring protests erupted in response to then Liberal premier Jean Charest’s plan to increase university fares. The demonstrations included many student associations from all over Quebec. Protestors increased in numbers as police repression worsened. The demonstrations prompted Charest to call for a new election, which he lost to the Parti Québécois (PQ).

The PQ was then ousted in 2014 by the Liberal Party, which in turn lost to the Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec in 2018. Like other mass movements before it, the Maple Spring could have been fertile ground for politicizing a whole new generation of students, many of whom occupy precarious employment — such as the jobs that CRM archaeology mostly has on offer. Although it didn’t produce a sea change in Quebec politics, the effects of the Maple Spring set the stage for Quebecois archaeologists to shift from workplace acquiescence to militating for improved working conditions. It also prompted reflection on the very meaning of archaeological practice.

In Spring 2017, a group of colleagues and I launched an initiative to better understand why the practice felt so wrong, and most importantly, what could be done about it. We were, for the most part, in our late twenties and early thirties, conducting master’s and doctoral theses in archaeology.

That same year, we made our presence felt at the archaeological association’s annual symposium, where such matters were almost never discussed. Importantly, we were not involved in a unionization campaign. At the time, unions were still badly understood by most of our colleagues (and, to be honest, by us as well). Simply mentioning the word might have framed our initiative in a negative light.

We felt that we needed to first develop a collective understanding of what was wrong at our workplaces and what could be done about it, and second, a sector-wide class consciousness around shared interests, values, and norms. We named our committee CNTAQ, the Comité de normalisation du travail en archéologie québécoise.

The Uphill Battle

Over the course of the following two years, we organized multiple roundtables with workers in order to write down new norms for the practice and to draft a standard contract that would allow for their implementation. We met with workers first — we drew a clear line in our organizing between employers and employees.

This demarcation between bosses and workers provided the space necessary to generate worker self-confidence, thorough workplace analyses, and the ability to articulate demands. These demands centered not simply on improving working conditions but also on the workplace norms — hampered by decades of neoliberal management — that had negatively affected our craft. We understood that a stronger workforce would be in a far better position to protect archaeological practice.

We met separately with employers in order to understand how they perceived workplace problems. We began collaborating with professors and students from Université de Montréal’s School of Industrial Relations. We organized various public workshops where we presented the ongoing results of our research. We created a Facebook page and a website (now defunct) where we uploaded our reports and lectures. These tools allowed us to keep in touch with workers during the dead season — fall and winter — during few CRM workers are employed.

We made sure that everybody could follow the process through which we were building our standard contract. We were especially careful to protect ourselves by ensuring transparency throughout the process, and were diligent about keeping track of worker input. We were, after all, not protected by Quebec’s deficient labor laws, and depended for our continued employment on the benevolence of employers who were sympathetic to our initiative.

We wrote a declaration of intent that was signed by close to a hundred archaeologists. The declaration stated that carrying out our work in a responsible manner required scientific rigor, responsibility toward communities and heritage, and good working conditions.

We presented the first draft of our standard contract at the Spring 2018 archaeological association symposium. By that time, our initiative had gained wide traction — a majority of archaeologists expressed interest in our initiative, including some employers and university professors dissatisfied by the state of CRM archaeology.

In laying the groundwork to give workers their say on their practice, we showed that workers can reshape their practice toward what we called an “archaeology at human scale.” These successes, however, began to elicit frustration from various employers. As a result, the bosses read a shared statement during the association’s annual assembly. They argued that it was fine for workers to want better working conditions, but that tying such demands to broader criticisms on the state of the craft itself was insulting and disrespectful to everybody in the field — and to every archaeological institution in Quebec.

Taking a page from the union-bashing playbook, the employers tried to shift the debate from workplace issues to characterizations of themselves as victims and workers as oppressors. This underlined the conflict in interests and values between workers and employers — workers were not allowed to have their say on archaeological ethics and power would not be shared.

Some employers began using this episode to cast shade on the standard contract we’d devised. This had the result of highlighting the limits on what our committee could do. If employers wouldn’t cooperate, we would be able to do very little besides collect data and write down rules that no one would care about. The CNTAQ seemed to have hit a wall.

Toward a Sector-Wide Union

The result of this employer recalcitrance was that various workers began to see the need for a union. While the CNTAQ was still active, I started working with a separate, underground workers’ committee to better understand how unionization worked and what it entailed. We drew on members of the CNTAQ initiative who we thought were sympathetic to unionization and who we knew would be discreet. In winter of 2019, we met with union representatives from Quebec’s Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN). We also learned that Ontario’s CRM archaeologists had initiated a unionization process with the LiUNA.

The SNAQ administration was founded in September 2019, and affiliated to the CSN. The groundwork laid by the CNTAQ paved the way for an almost overnight unionization of most of Quebec’s CRM archaeological sector. Union cards from around one hundred workers from various firms were registered in roughly a month and a half. Workers understood how their interests conflicted with their employers’, why a union was the necessary next step, and why it should be kept secret until the union accreditation requests were sent.

When union certifications were filed on November 29, 2019, employers were completely caught by surprise. Many felt betrayed by this, wondering why workers had not come to them first to discuss grievances. The CNTAQ was dissolved in February 2020, and the SNAQ was officially founded on March 2020. I retired from active organization at this point, and have kept informed about the unionization proceedings through general assemblies and union letters.

Since then, ten firms have been accredited. This has been a long process, owing in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. The biggest impediment, however, has been employers’ reluctance to see their firms unionized. Between January 2020 and October 2021, accreditation proceedings have dragged on through multiple court hearings. Meanwhile, workers have voted on a series of demands during general assemblies in 2021, in preparation for their first collective agreement.

These demands focused on improved wages, seniority, callback, and making sure that legal standards regarding health and security are always respected. Critical components for ensuring job security, such as insurance and pension plans, were not part of this first set of demands. Creating an initial collective bargaining agreement was the first, short-term priority. Gaining a solid foothold in the archaeological landscape was the immediate concern.

This explains why the SNAQ still hasn’t taken clear positions on broader archaeological ethics issues that might be used to frame the union in a bad light. Workers still need to obey their employers, even if this means destroying precious archaeological heritage in order to adhere to better-paid work with tighter schedules. These schedules can negatively impact scientific rigor — and the union could be blamed for it.

The union also makes very little mention about indigenous communities. Because of this oversight, it risks being portrayed as yet another colonial tool that reproduces extractivist dynamics. Additionally, the union has no strategy for including younger workers — at present, they are simply told that they should wait their turn on long waiting lists. Tensions between generational cohorts give employers a wedge that they can exploit in order to delegitimize unions and isolate older, more expensive workers.

These things will need addressing in the near future. Workers’ signatures on the CNTAQ declaration of intent shows that they are fully aware of these issues. To do anything about it, they need an organization with teeth, which only a union can provide. And yet it took almost two years from the union’s official foundation for collective bargaining negotiations to begin. Agreements have yet to be collectively acceded to, let alone signed.

Younger employers who came of age during the Maple Spring, CNTAQ initiative, or the SNAQ’s early days have helmed the most cooperative firms during these most recent negotiations. They are the ones who have agreed to sign a tentative agreement that closely follows worker demands. On the other hand, resistance from older firms to power sharing in the workplace seems as strong now as it was in 2017. This conflict has transformed the short-term goal of obtaining a first collective agreement into a long-term endeavor that is delaying the union’s ability to address broad and urgent concerns such as wage increases and a transparent recall process.

Older firms, by dragging on negotiations, are preventing workers from democratizing their workplace and organizing at the sector-wide scale necessary to enact real and effective change. The opposition of many CRM employers is what is keeping archeologist workers on the cusp of signing their first collective agreement. Employers need to be reminded that without workers, their enterprises amount to very little.