Unions, Wages and Justice

I was doing some research this weekend, and happened upon this tidbit from an Alberta Teachers’ Association local. It’s in a Q and A format, and it’s supposed to address the perceptions of some that teachers are overcompensated for their work. So here’s the question:

Q: Why are teachers getting a 5.99% increase in pay this year?  What gives when lots of people are losing their jobs or taking zero, or close to zero, percent increases?

And now here’s the answer:

A: Teachers’ wages in Alberta are determined by a collective agreement between the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the Alberta Government.  Wages are determined by an index of Alberta Weekly Wages.  This index is the same one MLAs use to determine their pay increases from year to year.  As teachers are payed based on an index, they are always one year behind private industry.  So what teachers receive in September of 2009 is reflective of the 2008 Average Weekly Wages Index.  In September of 2010 teachers will receive an increase based on the index for 2009.  This index is calculated by Stats Canada.

There are a couple of things going on in this exchange that are worth paying attention to. The first thing to notice is that the “Q” – the question – is a question of justice. The question being asked is this: “Is it fair that teachers are guaranteed comfortable pay increases when so many other people are not?” The response, however, interprets the question not as one of justice, but of fact. The question answered is “How are teachers’ pay increases determined?”

So what we’ve got here is a moral question – What’s fair? What’s right? – being addressed with a factual statement of how teachers’ wages are set. And if you’re the person asking “What gives?” above, you’re probably pretty dissatisfied with the answer you got. This is because, as the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume observed, moral problems can never be answered by appeals to facts [1]. That’s what makes moral problems so… well…problematic.

Now if you get that okay (or even just sort of), the other thing that’s interesting is that the same response to the question above, while providing facts, still implies a “What’s right?; What’s fair?” claim by raising the point that the weekly wage index is also used to determine pay increases for Alberta’s MLAs. The comparison is highlighted again in a recent Calgary Herald account of the latest, greatest scrap between the province and its teachers [2]. Frustrated, an ATA representative for Calgary Public’s school teachers states of Premier Ed Stelmach and his government:

“When in doubt, blame the teachers and raises that are based on an index the government agreed to and that’s still good enough for the salaries of members of the legislative assembly.”

The implied argument here is that teachers’ wage determinations are fair because these are the same criteria used for another occupational group – Alberta politicians themselves.

However, if we used the same strategy – using comparison to determine what’s fair – we could basically slot in and compare any two occupational groups to make a justice claim. For example: “Superstore cashiers should have indexed wage increases because teachers do.” This leads us right back to the question we began with: Teachers’ salaries are indexed; many others’ aren’t. Again: Why? What’s fair? “What gives?” We still don’t have an answer.

Unions, Markets and What’s “Fair”

What unions do – especially public sector unions – is turn wages into questions of justice instead of questions of fact. If we go to pure economic theory, there is no moral actor: we just look to the market, which is not a person but a collection of independent negotiations between “buyers” (employers) and “sellers” (workers) [3]. This allows pure market economists to appeal to the “fact” of market determined wages; fair pay is what the market bears. By aggregating (bringing together) all those individual negotiations into this big amoral thing we call “the market,” questions of what’s fair and what’s right are obscured.

But when we interrupt market mechanisms with collective bargaining and negotiations, we quickly get into complex questions of justice that the market-based arguments avoid. The issues raised are nicely captured in New Republican editor Jonathon Cohn’s February, 2011 analysis of a bitter clash between Wisconsin’s unionized teachers and the state’s newly elected hard-core Republican governor, Scott Walker [4]. In his discussion Cohn considers:

“Suppose public workers really do make more than private sector workers. Who’s to say that the problem is public workers making too much, rather than private sector workers making too little? For example…the average salary for a janitor working in government as of 2005 was $23,700…while the average salary for a janitor working in the private sector was $19,800. But does that mean the woman cleaning toilets at a county courthouse was making too much? Or that the one cleaning toilets at a corporate office was making too little?”

Cohn’s questions can’t be answered, right? That’s because the worth of work – particularly when we start comparing different sectors, different occupations, and different systems of wage negotiation – ultimately boil down to questions of value, not fact. It’s a fact that the workers he describes are paid differently, but that doesn’t help us much. It is also a fact that markets will determine upper and lower limits of what it’s feasible to pay different workers in different sectors, but holy, there’s a lot of grey area between those limits. And a lot of grey area in the criteria we use to decide what’s “fair.” But it’s still about what’s fair.

That’s why it’s important to read and think carefully when union politics hit the media. The example I gave above is not unusual: We often see fact claims obscuring value claims, and vice versa, especially when people are all wound up. Labour politics get emotional precisely because justice claims are at their heart.

By my way of thinking, no one has the market cornered (so to speak) either on what’s a fair wage for given work, or on strategies and criteria we ought to use to determine what’s fair. It helps, though, if we keep in mind that “fairness” isn’t something we can appeal to as a given, or as common sense, even though this is often the way it comes across in media accounts of labour disputes.

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Notes and References

[1] This is commonly referred to as the “is/ought” fallacy, and it works like this: “Ought” claims are moral claims; they make cases for how the world should be. Justifications for moral claims can only be made by appeals to other moral claims. Here’s a simple (I hope) example:

“Killing people is wrong.” (Moral or “ought” statement: “We ought not kill each other.”)

Why not? Why shouldn’t we kill people? A justification might be: “War and murder cause untold human suffering.”

Okay yeah, but that suggests that human suffering is wrong, which just leads to another “why” question:

“Well why is suffering wrong/bad?”

See how that works? You can go on forever. And it doesn’t help a bit if we provide facts or numbers:

“Millions died in World War II.”

A real pragmatist might just argue we need to cull the human population once in a while. Now, most of us have an intuitive sense of right and wrong. That’s why we would find the “culling” idea pretty morally repugnant. But that’s different than saying you can “prove” the statement is wrong. You can’t. The important thing to realize is this: you can’t solve moral debates by appealing to facts.

If you want a little more explanation, here’s the Wikipedia link: Fact/Value Distinction. I’m not gonna lie; it’s a bit chewy. I tried to find a better layperson’s explanation, without success. Makes it easier to understand why so many people fear philosophy. Too bad.

[2] The soundbite version: the Alberta government has reneged on a five year agreement with Alberta teachers by refusing to fund the fifth year of the wage increases negotiated in this agreement. As you’ll see if you read the article I mentioned above, our premier hasn’t been “playing nice,” and raised some hackles by blaming teachers for the layoffs that are coming out of this funding cut. In my opinion – pardon the aside here – breaching a contract is dealing in bad faith – period. By not honouring the existing five year deal, the government has severely compromised future deals. Longer term, province wide settlements between the province, the ATA and the province’s school boards benefit everyone by providing stable, predictable education funding.

[3] See Wheeler, H., Klaas, B., & Mahoney, D. (2004). Workplace Justice Without Unions. Kalamazoo, MI: WE Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

[4] Here’s a quick report of the events to which Cohn’s article refers: Wisconsin Teachers Protest Ed Budget, Union Cuts. ABC News, February 17, 2011

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