We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Map of WalkoutsToday is National Adjunct Walkout Day, but instead of participating I’ll walk-in to the Jessup Correctional Institution and I won’t walk-out until my class and other responsibilities are done. Mostly that’s because I think the adjunct problem is less important than the mass incarceration problem, and my students would be worse off if I decided to stay home. I’d be a cad to complain to them about my plight, in any case: they make less than a dollar a day, if they’re lucky enough to get jobs at all. But my situation is probably a bit unique: most students won’t complain if their teachers cancel class. They consider themselves better off when we stay home.

On the commute to Jessup, I’ll get caught in traffic. It seems like I always do! And there’s something I like to remind myself as I’m driving: I’m part of the problem. It always seems like the car in front of me is the problem, the one who just cut me off. But to the car behind me, I’m the one in the way. Traffic works that way: we think we’re the victims of traffic, but really we’re the perpetrators. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Low wages work sort of the same way. It seems like they’re the employer’s fault, or the competition’s. But the employers are just trying to save money (and yes, that means they don’t care as much about the quality of the education they provide as they do about costs, though adjuncts provide high quality educations anyway). And our fellow adjuncts are bidding down wages because they are willing to work for so little, but they can rightly point to me as the problem, working–for free!– at a prison alongside three other jobs when I ought to be bidding wages up. Collectively, we have made ourselves cheap. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Anyone with a PhD can make more money in another field: we’re smart folks, with skills that other people will pay to learn, which they will then use less well than we could–for more money. So a walkout makes sense. What makes less sense is coming back. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Now of course I’m ignoring the obvious: universities are corporatized businesses run in such a way as to exploit their labor force, to separate us from the value of our labor. Without shareholders, the primary beneficiaries of that exploitation are other workers in the same firm: administrators, senior faculty, and the like. But still: that exploitation depends on a reserve army of underemployed PhDs willing to take the job, which of course pays poorly but comes with great heaps of respect and esteem. So it’s still true: we’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

So all we need to do is decide who will stay home. For that we’ll need collective bargaining–unions–and we’ll need to understand that the unions are only going to be effective if, after the walkouts, some of us decide (or are forced) to stay home. But maybe in that case we won’t all be better off: maybe the people who have to stay home or leave the academy will be worse off. Or maybe many of us would be better off if only someone would convince us that working at GEICO would be a better job.

Three reports worth looking at if you want to have an evidence-based discussion of these issues:

Arendt, Antisemitism, and the Chicago Teachers’ Union Strike

I am one of those ideologically-impure liberals that worries a lot about public sector unions. On the one hand, I favor workplace democracy and collaboration; on the other hand, I worry about the fact that as union membership has declined, the majority of remaining union members haved tended to be at the top of the income distribution and to have many other forms of cultural and social capital as well. A public sector union member gets input into the functioning of government as a voter, plus they get input into our government as a union member concerned about their own labor conditions. What’s more, public-sector unions are not all the same: to my mind there’s a difference between a teacher’s union and a police or prison guard union, and I’m not willing to be univocal in my support for both. Still, my bias is generally in favor of teachers: I am one, after all.

Caption BelowI recently read an interesting factoid about teaching: in the 1960s, 2/3 of all households had school age children. Today, only 1/3 do. Attempts to verify these have been unsuccessful, although the percentage has certainly been dropping for a long time along with the birth rate. (I also learned that 39% of Chicago’s public school teachers send their own children to private schools.)

Looking at the responses to the Chicago Teacher’s Strike, especially the way it pits centrist technocratic Democrats like Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel against old-school labor progressives, I suspect that the falling percentage of families with school-age children is part of the problem. Sure, everyone agrees that education is important, but fewer families actually have current need of a good education, and so for better or worse they have begun to look at the costs rather than the benefits of strong schools.

In my view, this decline allows an interesting analogy with Hannah Arendt’s account of the growth of anti-semitism in Origins of Totalitarianism, which itself is derived from Karl Marx’s essay on On The Jewish Question. Arendt argued that Jews had failed to take advantage of their political and economic power while it was still extensive enough to garner protection from the Christian majority. When their role as scapegoat creditors was centralized into big (non-Jewish) businesses and a few Jewish financiers, the long-ignored differences between Jews and Christians exploded to the fore, with genocidal results.

Arendt bases this theory on Tocqueville’s account of the downfall of the French aristocracy:

“the French people hated aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any considerable decline in their fortunes. As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country.”

Troublesome as inequality and oppression may be, inequality without the power to back it up is even worse. Arendt suggests that the Jews refused to occupy a designated space within the European political economy, instead “choosing” to remain aloof no matter which class individual Jews would otherwise occupy. (Of course, it’s not so simple, but to Arendt it seems that there was a coincidence between the Jewish desire for group survival and the nation-state’s interest in preventing assimiliation.) Yet according to Arendt this became a great problem when successful Jews sought acceptance and assimilation into the professions and intellectual elites:

“Central and Western European Jewries had reached a saturation point in wealth and economic fortune. This might have been the moment for them to show that they actually wanted money for money’s sake or for power’s sake. In the former case, they might have expanded their businesses and handed them down to their descendants; in the latter they might have entrenched themselves more firmly in state business and fought the influence of big business and industry on governments. But they did neither. In the contrary, the sons of well-to-do businessmen and, to a lesser extent, bankers, deserted their fathers careers for the liberal professions or purely intellectual pursuits they had not been able to afford a few generations before.”

Arendt called this “political ignorance” that blinded the Jews to “the political dangers of antisemitism.” Certainly they understood the costs of social discrimination; what they did not understand was the way this would morph under totalitarianism:

“Whenever equality becomes a mundane fact in itself, without any gauge by which it may be measured or explained, then there is one chance in a hundred that it will be recognized simply as a working principle of a political organization in which otherwise unequal people have equal rights; there are ninety-nine chances that it will be mistaken for an innate quality of every individual, who is “normal” if he is like everybody else and “abnormal” if he happens to be different. This perversion of equality from apolitical into a social concept is all the more dangerous when a society leaves but little space for special groups and individuals, for then their differences become all the more conspicuous.” (55)

To be unequal when equality is understood as equality before the law is a blessing; to be unequal when equality is understood as a social requirement for membership in the political community is quite a curse. The more that Americans attend to income inequality, the more they will worry about Wall Street bankers, certainly; but they also worry about the local inequalities, those they see at work in their own communities. Wall Street is far away for most Americans; yet everyone has a local government, and most Americans can observe that the cars that park in the teachers’ lot are nicer than their own, while simultaneously noting that teachers have shorter days and longer vacations.

For Arendt, the backlash of resentment comes when those with a privilege lose the power to enforce it. The aristocrats tried to keep their privileges without preserving the authority to organize their communities, and they lost their heads; the Ancien Régime gave way to the centrally-administered bureaucracy. Teachers are no longer trusted to evaluate their own success or failure; more and more of their lesson plans are legislated or provided by centralized textbook publishers. Fewer families depend upon teachers than ever before, and those who do have political power don’t trust the public schools in large urban school districts like Chicago, New York City, or Washington, DC. In these and many other ways, the job of teaching K-12 education is being de-professionalized, in large part because we’ve tried to demand that education solve all of our problems and it simply cannot.

Perhaps this comparison is not the right one, but what I notice is that labor solidarity is increasingly exclusive of the least-advantaged. Especially during times of increasing unemployment, I worry that solidarity with laborers will not include those most in need. Unions are no longer primarily sources of solidarity between the lower and middle-class and a means of stepping into the middle-class; now they are sources of solidarity within some elements of the upper-middle class, i.e. those who are well above the median income in the United States. In this sense, public sector labor unions appear to command economic power while failing to achieve the cross-class solidarity that would legitimize that economic power for those who are worse-off. The resentment that emerges, then, appears to be driven by the demographic constitution of the union itself. As Arendt pointed out, rights without the power to protect them are useless: when you need them, they’re not there.

Even as teachers are losing political power, it appears that the political power of labor solidarity has an unfortunate tendency to accumulate among those who already have it. In the US, the people who most need unions don’t have them: Walmart workers; nurses and home health aids; agriculture and construction workers. Meanwhile, the people who least need unions get them: folks with graduates degrees and guns. Soon, perhaps, it will just be those with guns who can prevent the legislative undermining of their rights to collective bargaining.

(Continued in the next post, Public-sector unions as Public Work: The Case for Teachers)

Voice Beyond Recourse and Rights (Workplace Domination Part Four)

I’ve been putting off finishing my series on the Bleeding Hearts/Crooked Timber debates, because Chris Bertram had suggested that there might be a reply to critics. Now he says it might be a while longer, so I’m going to finish up.

In my last post, I suggested that none of the methods proposed by the Crooked Timber bloggers could actually guarantee “voice” instead of merely reciprocal power. Most of their proposed solutions, like workplace regulations, offer only rights and institutional recourse. But “voice” is special, and especially central to our conceptions of positive, active liberty: in the political sphere we contrast the ability to seek redress of rights-infractions in a court of law with the ability to protest and deliberate about what rights we should have and how our society should be organized. Even voting for representatives isn’t enough to guarantee “voice” if the choice offered to citizens forecloses some options they would like to consider, as Kenneth Arrow has proven it must.

Following Jim Bohman and Hannah Arendt, I’d suggest that the ultimate source of “voice” lies in issue selection, the capacity to initiate deliberation rather than simply responding to choices offered by bureaucrats. Neither unions nor regulators can offer this opportunity: as they grow in size and complexity, it becomes more and more difficult for an ordinary worker to offer a unique solution and to have that opinion heard. This is why Arendt called bureaucracy “the rule of No Man,” critically echoing the self-satisfied pronouncements of the Federalists that democracy requires “the rule of laws, and not the rule of men.” Perhaps I cannot be dominated (arbitrarily interfered with) by a law, a rule, or a procedure, but neither can I exercise the important human capacity to engage fully in the constitution of our shared world.

How, then, can we guarantee voice? I have three suggestions: the No Asshole Rule, Workplace Democracy, and Syndicalism.

The No Asshole Rule is a book by Richard Sutton that I often recommend. It’s a great mix of Harvard Business Review cases studies and common sense advice, but the punchline is simple: assholes are bad for business, so identify them, put them on notice, and if they don’t shape up, get rid of them. (This is precisely the kind of soft evaluation that strict union rules make impossible.)

Workplace Democracy: Have you ever thought that your workplace was overly political, too dominated by gossip and loyalties? Well, you were wrong: the truth is, your workplace is not political enough. Workers can and have deliberated and voted on matters as diverse as pay and management, workplace safety, and hiring and firing. Of course, as an introvert I know that this can seem a daunting task: too many meetings, too much social coordination, too many opportunities for status and exclusion games. It’s exhausting, and I can readily see the ways in which the ultimate recourse to group decision-making removes many of the safeguards supplied by constitional provisions that guarantee procedural justice. But if you want voice, this is how to get it. If you don’t like the idea of workplace democracy, then perhaps these objections point to a problem with voice.

Syndicalism: This term has a long and variegated history, but syndicalism basically just means worker ownership of the firm. The real problem with instituting no asshole rules and more democratic procedures in the workplace is that it pits workers against shareholders. Yet there are already corporate forms, like partnerships, where workers participate in decision-making because they are part-owners of the company. If they make good decisions, they receive dividends; if they make bad decisions, they may have to give up some of their salary or even go out of business.

Of course, part of the special history of syndicalism is the forceful expropriation of currently existing physical plant and machinery by the workers. But pacifist syndicalism is also possible, and many community development corporations are organized in basically this way. The real problem for syndicalism is how to allocate savings and manage reinvestment: a successful industry will produce profits in excess of what should be reinvested in the same industry. If those profits are invested in another industry, the workers in the first industry becomes owners of the capital and physical plant used by workers in the second industry. This problem is probably insurmountable: savings equals investment and investment creates inequality. That’s probably okay because investment also produces increased productivity, i.e. a bigger pie to divide less evenly.

One solution is to conclude that it is better to forgo voice in the workplace and simply to advocate for a generous welfare state and a Basic Income Guarantee so that each worker has adequate exit options. This is what Tyler Cowen and Matt Yglesias conclude, and I can’t help thinking that their critics at Crooked Timber were unwilling to recognize that they might have good reason for coming to that conclusion because the critics are so excited to paint libertarians as heartless.

Another solution is to advocate for “property-owning democracy,” fully cognizant that this may create a smaller savings rate and leave future generations worse off, as Rawls did. But if this is your stance, you shouldn’t be satisfied with regulations and unions: you should advocate for a fuller reorganization of the political economy beyond simple workplace antagonism. This the Crooked Timber bloggers have not done.

Consider the Bathroom Break (Workplace Domination Part Three)

The virtue of the Crooked Timber bloggers’ objections to the Bleeding Heart Libertarians’ line is that it implicitly suggests the difference between liberal and republican conceptions of freedom. Libertarians have usually substituted theories of interference and coercion for a full-blown theory of domination. When Chris Bertram stopped by, he suggested that they wanted to avoid this theoretical debate, but I think it impoverishes the conversation a bit. I’ve written about this at length in the past, but for the purposes of navigating the Bleeding Hearts/Crooked Timber debates on workplace domination, here’s a quick primer on interference, coercion, and domination.

In the comments to my first post, Daniel Levine asked:

“Why, exactly, do you need the distinction between actual productivity-enhancing rules and dominating ones? If your target is domination, it doesn’t seem to matter if the domination enhances productivity, for two reasons.

1. Productivity is, at best, an indirect good for most workers (it may be more directly beneficial for academic workers, since we tend to be abnormally non-alienated from our work).

2. The fact that domination is “good for me” in terms of some of my interests does not generally make it any less domination or much less morally problematic. Part of the core insight, I think, of Pettit, is that domination is about whether my situation is responsive to my own agency and conception of my good, not just whether it maximizes my own interests.”

There’s a debate in the literature about this: one way of defining domination is as arbitrary interference. Arbitrariness generally means “choosing or not choosing at pleasure,” and this is the sense that I believe is correct. Philip Pettit has offered a defense of a stricter, more substantive sense of arbitrariness as “failure to track people’s interests according to their ideas,” but I think this is unworkable at the level of the firm. Certainly, in society as a whole we must avoid arbitrary interference with a person that is not in keeping with their conception of the good, but at the level of the firm it is appropriate to require that all workers set aside their conflicting conceptions of the good and join, for at least as long as they are on shift, with other workers whose efforts are bent toward a common good envisioned by the firm. I would argue that we should also set aside (or translate) our individualistic conceptions of the good when we enter the public sphere and act as citizens, but this is a long debate that is far afield.

Consider the bathroom break: on my view, an “arbitrary” interference would involve some non-principled way of awarding bathroom breaks, like the sweatshop practice of asking permission from pit bosses, who can play favorites or simply deny all requests. In such contexts, it is very demeaning to be denied the right to engage in basic bodily functions. You’ve got to pee when you’ve got to pee.

Yet things are a bit different on an assembly line, where if one person leaves the whole line has to stop. In general, the most non-arbitrary way to deal with this is to have a few extra relief workers available to swap places so that a worker with an urgent need can quickly head to the bathroom. A factory with such a system is simply more productive than one without it, but if everyone needs a break at once, someone may have to wait: this is not domination.

There are definitely domination violations in the sanitation arena, and these are policed by OSHA, which has pretty specific rules about bathrooms and sanitation. Yet they have never enforced a quantitative standard (i.e. four breaks per shift, at least one relief worker per twenty employees) because different industries and different people have different needs.

Instead, OSHA have chosen the famously legalistic “reasonableness” standard. And they actually cite and levy fines very infrequently, either because infractions are few and far between or because their enforcement is quite lax. Evidence suggests that former, but so does basic economics: this kind of domination is simply not productivity-enhancing.

Of course, even bathroom breaks are not always a matter of dignity: a traditional assembly line worker dealing with intestinal issues is going to seriously hamper the functioning of that assembly line, so it’s better for the company to let that worker call in sick (for pay, to avoid people showing up when they shouldn’t) and have replacements available. By way of analogy, consider that long haul buses don’t usually have bathrooms on them, so you have to wait until the next stop, which may be a few hours away. You’re not being “dominated” in that sense, it’s just that onboard bathrooms are too expensive. This may not correspond directly to a persons’ “interests according to their ideas.” Somebody with a chronic condition (IBS, say) might object that this prevents them from taking certain kinds of jobs. The ADA standard of “reasonable accommodation” seems pretty appropriate here: it’s a vague principle, but in practice and through judicial and agency interpretations it gets fleshed out in a pragmatic way that is aligned towards overall productivity.

Despite this slight departure, Pettit and I agree that “constitutional provision” is generally superior to “reciprocal power,” and indeed the Crooked Timber bloggers depend on this to be the case to defend voice over exit. The easiest way to enact “reciprocal power” is grant both worker and manager equal power to destroy the bond that joins them: managers command, but workers can quit. Thus, the manager can arbitrarily interfere with the worker, but the worker can do likewise by leaving, forcing the employer to search for new employees. No one enforces a “you can’t quit because your manager won’t sleep with you” rule, so (if the power is truly reciprocal) no one would need to enforce a “you can’t fire him because your worker won’t sleep with you” rule.

Of course, the power relations between workers and employers aren’t generally reciprocal! But this is not to say that they never are or cannot be: some high skill, high demand workers can negotiate these issues without help. It’s even possible to imagine some employees who have more power than their employers: consider doctors and lawyers, for instance, who we rarely speak of as “dominated” by their patients and clients.

What makes those professions powerful enough to escape arbitrary interference? One word: exit. Though the Crooked Timber bloggers contest this, I believe that generous unemployment benefits or a basic income guarantee are adequate to supply a kind of reciprocity. Part of this is tied to the “full employment” question: if there is a reserve army of unemployed than the protesting worker does not really have reciprocal power. BUT! The basic income guarantee militates in favor of full employment, which the CT bloggers gloss over in their analysis.

But that doesn’t mean that exit is sufficient. A firm made non-dominating merely by exit options and reciprocal power is one where only constant vigilance and threats deter resurgence of domination. In that sense, this would be a civil “war of all-against-all,” a Rawlsian modus vivendi. Both firms and employees should want more than that, and not just because of domination concerns.

The imposition of procedural rationality in the workplace limits both employer and employee arbitrariness in a way that benefits both. The principled restriction is that both are motivated by the same goal, of engaging in productive work. Most arbitrary interference is at odds with this goal. This is akin to “constitutional provision.”

What I mean by “constitutional provision” is a set of procedures for preventing arbitrary domination rather than for redressing it after the fact. (Rights not revenge.) In the political setting where a constitution limits the activities of the executive and legislative branches, we can say that the legislature is less free to make certain arbitrary interventions into the lives of its citizens. In the same way, constitutional provision in the workplace limits the range of restrictions that employers can place on employees.

Firms are an important part of the republic, and a republic that focuses on non-domination is going to want to prevent domination within the firm. One way to achieve this goal is to couple restrictions on the scope of arbitrary interference within the firm with adequate exit options. But none of this will grant “voice” alone. OSHA doesn’t give an employee “voice,” it gives employees recourse and an opportunity for reprisal after domination has taken place.

Let’s consider two paradigm cases of voice: an employee identifies favoritism, productivity-reducing arbitrary interference from a manager, and then brings attention to the manager’s superiors. This kind of voice benefits both the firm and the employee, but it requires that the employer create a protected channel of communication. If the only person the effected employees can complain to is the manager engaging in favoritism, the employees will be silenced by fear of reprisals. In this case, voice is aligned with the principle of productive collaboration rather than domination, and arbitrary interference results in lost productivity.

Now consider a productivity-reducing use of voice: employees protest automation because fewer workers will be needed to supply the same product. (I’ve recently been having this conversation with fellow academics about Coursera.) In aggregate, the world is better off if the same product (a car or an education) can be produced more cheaply. It doesn’t matter if the mission of a firm is to make widgets or mold young minds: ifa better technique comes along that uses fewer workers, than those workers can do something else. (Belief to the contrary is known as the “lump of labor” fallacy, but in any case these concerns are dispatched by the Basic Income Guarantee and full employment.) An effective exercise of employees’ voice in such a context would make the commonwealth poorer in order to serve the advantage of a few. Employees can certainly exercises voice in such circumstances, but the outcome of that exercise should be in favor of productivity gains. A firm that makes automation decisions does not dominate its employees, because the decision is guided by the principle of productivity, any more than an employee with a better job offer dominates his employer.

The CT bloggers argue that unions are a necessary component of such exercises of voice. Certainly one way to create a protected channel of communication is through a union representative or employee inclusion program. But this is not a necessary consequence of unions, and in fact union members are less likely to report that they have a meaningful role in decision-making than non-union members.

Of course, unions can enable voice: contract negotiations can become a space where labor and capital constructively engage with each other regarding all aspects of the firm. It’s just that they don’t tend to do that; large union bureaucracies don’t guarantee workplace democracy. They can supply other goods, like solidarity, opportunities for civic engagement, and protection from exploitation in our actually existing world of injustice. But in this sense they serve the “reciprocal power” goal by allowing periodic renegotiation and protection from reprisal. Yet a firm that is restricted by full employment considerations in the labor market and that enacts its own procedural approach to personnel matters will be able to prevent many forms of non-productive arbitrary interference with employees without a union.

Meanwhile, unions do enable one obvious form of interference: they enable the majority of workers in a shop to dictate working conditions and extract dues from the minority of workers. Even though closed shops are unconstitutional, agency shops that require non-union members to work under the collectively bargained contract and to pay dues for that privilege, which dues can then be spent on lobbying and advertising that does not conform to the some members of the minority’s “interests according to their own ideas.”

Is this domination? On my view, it is not, because it fails to be arbitrary: so long as the union does in fact work in a principled (non-arbitrary) way to advance the actual interests of the employee. But of course, there is no guarantee that this will take place. There is even risk of the arbitrary interference being reversed, and a particularly powerful union making unreasonable demands on a firm! Arguably, the public unions that have survived our long period of anti-union sentiment do just that, only the “firm” in this case is the republic itself: just remember that the only union that Scott Walker didn’t attack was the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, for whom citizens’ rights are simply “conditions of employment.”