Notes From Babel

The Labor Movement, Redistributive Justice, and Procedural Fairness

with 8 comments

The left’s alignment with unions is more than merely political—it is ideological.  The major justification for continued existence of unions, particularly public sector unions, borrows heavily from a liberal conception of redistributive justice, as follows:

  • As a matter of first principles, all Americans are entitled to a minimum standard of living.
  • As a matter of observed fact, impersonal market forces sometimes do not result in compensation that comports with that preconceived standard of living.
  • Therefore, the market is an unsatisfactory mechanism for assigning economic values to labor.

I do not hide my antipathy for this line of reasoning, but I will not assail it here.  I want to instead press upon participants in the debate over organized labor, and particularly over public sector unions, of the impossibility of meaningful progress in that debate without acknowledging the standoff between conservative and liberal first principles.  More specifically, I contend that the labor movement will fail to win many converts because it either cannot or will not approach the issues as most Americans do:  by focusing on procedural fairness, rather than substantive outcomes.  While many people might believe they should earn more money, for example, they eschew procedurally unfair mechanisms to achieve it.  The abuse of procedural mechanisms, however, is precisely the criticism lodged against public sector unions.

As I discussed at length in a previous post, public sector unions present, at a minimum, the following forms of procedural unfairness:

  • Striking in the public sector exerts political rather than economic pressure on the government (who continues to collect taxes regardless), and is thus designed to harm the members of the public, particularly the poor, who depend on government services that unions are contracted to provide.
  • The employer with whom public employee unions negotiate—the government—is not just another industry, and thus normal market constraints are often supplanted by political restraints and more flexible accounting practices that enable unfair and unrealistic concessions in favor of unions.
  • Using their substantial political clout, public employee unions are able to influence elections and thus exert control over the representatives with whom they negotiate, resulting in less-than-arms’-length negotiations.
  • Accordingly, public employee unions are able to negotiate deals that often violate state constitutional proscriptions against retroactive compensation and incurring liabilities without voter approval.
  • Public employee unions represent one of the most powerful special interest groups by, in part, having successfully lobbied for laws requiring union dues be automatically collected from their members.
  • Public employee unions lobby against laws, such as Right to Work, that prohibit coercive and anti-competitive practices.
  • Public employee unions, unlike the general public, are permitted to press their interests upon elected officials in closed-door negotiations.
  • All this substantial political influence wielded by public sector unions constitutes an improper delegation of the police power properly held in trust by elected officials for the protection of the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the public.

The dispute over public sector unions, then, is between mainstream Americans in the private sector who believe fairness is achieved with the guarantee of fair and adequate procedures, and union supporters who believe fairness can only be determined by looking to substantive outcomes.  For the first group, public sector unions are unfair because they are given and make resort to special procedures not available to other groups.  For the second group, these various procedural objections are unpersuasive so long as public employees receive adequate compensation according to conceptions of liberal redistributive justice.

The two groups hopelessly talk past each other, then, as they are each lobbying for disparate forms of justice.  As a matter of practical reality, the two conceptions of justice are mutually exclusive:  The guarantee of procedural fairness is precisely the guarantee of fixed procedures in order to achieve particularized outcomes based on individual merit.  The guarantee of substantive fairness is precisely the guarantee of particularized procedures in order to achieve fixed outcomes based on conceptions of a “human right” to membership in the Middle Class.

It should be obvious, then, that for advocates of procedural fairness, whether public employees are overcompensated is merely a derivative claim—the principal claim is procedural unfairness.  The disparity in substantive outcomes that results between public and private employees—despite their being otherwise similarly situated—is evidence of the fundamental procedural problem.  (Incidentally, the same basic argument runs with respect to wealthy financiers.  Mainstream Americans are not overly bothered by the notion that someone, somewhere, might be very rich.  They are bothered instead by the idea that they might have become rich because of unfair tax policies, unfair regulatory schemes, or outright fraud—all of which are examples of procedural unfairness.)

This is why liberals will not answer the questions about the basic unfairness of public sector unions—they have no interest in fixing the unions.  It’s the unions who’ve got the right idea, according to liberals:  fix the value of labor in the first event to meet a basic standard of living, and then work backwards to somehow make all the math work. Instead, liberals are interested in making the rest of the workplace look more like the public sector.

The strategy seems like it would be a slam-dunk:  who wouldn’t favor an approach that would increase their compensation?  Thus, the fact that as many Americans disfavor as favor public employee unions strikes liberals as evidence of a stupid or brainwashed population captured by powerful corporate interests.  I submit instead that liberals have to this point ignored Americans’ strong predisposition toward procedural fairness, and that, provided procedural fairness is reasonably assured, Americans are willing to accept disparate outcomes—the bugbear of liberal ideology.  This is the bitter pill that liberals are reluctant to swallow, and it is why they have not made meaningful progress in advancing the dialog on public sector unions or addressing their many systemic abuses.

__________________________________________________________
Cross-Posted at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

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8 Responses

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  1. […] what Toulmin described as different warrants. Tim Kowal, being what some would call en fuego, lays out one such set of contrasting visions, and how they play out in the current kerfuffle: The dispute over public […]

  2. […] could extend the analysis of process vs. outcomes that I discussed recently to health care.  It’s too late at night to attempt a serious treatment, but recall that the […]

  3. “Public employee unions represent one of the most powerful special interest groups by, in part, having successfully lobbied for laws requiring union dues be automatically collected from their members.”

    Actually, this accounting system is an example of just how powerless unions are.

    The more strategic (and common) accounting practice would be to extract overhead costs at the contract level when the contract is negotiated; not as a line item on each workers paycheck.

    Imagine if every corporation with a government contract were required to add up all of their overhead costs and profit included in the government contract they just signed, then divide it evenly among all the employees working on that contract, and then subtract it back out as line item displayed on the pay check of each of their employee. That way every employee could see how much money the company was making off of their labor.

    This is what unions do. That’s what this practice is. It’s just an accounting practice.

    Riley

    March 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm

  4. “Striking in the public sector exerts political rather than economic pressure on the government (who continues to collect taxes regardless), and is thus designed to harm the members of the public, particularly the poor, who depend on government services that unions are contracted to provide.”

    First, it is against the law for labor in critical services to strike.

    Second, a strike will always backfire upon the union if they do not have a majority of support among the electorate (see Reagan and Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization).

    The reality is that public sector unions (and unions in general) have very little power. To the extent that they appear to have power, it is because teachers, firefighters, and police enjoy the political support of the electorate.

    Riley

    March 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm

  5. “Public employee unions lobby against laws, such as Right to Work, that prohibit coercive and anti-competitive practices.”

    Maybe anti-competitive, but no more so that non-compete clauses included in employment agreements. non-compete clauses are required as a condition of employment by corporations and are solidly upheld by the courts. Making laws that arbitrarily single out the non-compete clauses in union contract is an arbitrary and unjust application of the law.

    Why should an employer be allowed to steal away members of a union any more so than they should be allowed to steal away employees from a contractor?

    Also, why should an employee be allowed to benefit from the terms of a contract (negotiated at a cost), and not pay what they are contractually obligated to pay (i.e. their union dues) as part of that agreement ?

    Riley

    March 18, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    • In California, “every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void.” Bus. & Prof. Code § 16600. According to the California Supreme Court in Edwards v. Arthur Anderson, LLP, “Fairly read, the foregoing authorities suggest section 16600 embodies the original, strict common law antipathy toward restraints of trade.” Some states may have a more relaxed rule, but the general presumption is to disfavor restraints on trade.

      Tim Kowal

      March 18, 2011 at 5:11 pm

      • I agree California has it right. The other 49 states should follow California’s lead. But the point here is that “Right-to-Work” legislation is an arbitrary approach.

        “Right-to-Work” legislation is a partisan political strategy. If you really want to correct the problem, make non-compete clauses illegal across the board: both for corporations and for unions.

        Riley

        March 19, 2011 at 9:18 am

  6. […] the difference comes down to one between procedural and substantive justice: the ideal of substantive justice (i.e., equality) cannot withstand the natural human urge to see […]


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