Labor Roundtable: The Labor Movement, Redistributive Justice, and Procedural Fairness
by Tim Kowal
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.