A Prolegomena to Any Future Labor Union

In his classic 1971 treatise, A Theory of Justice, American philosopher, John Rawls, attempts to answer a question that has preoccupied political philosophers, clergymen, social scientists and legal scholars ever since Plato first hung out his shingle.  The question:  What is justice?

To answer it, Rawls assigns us the hypothetical task of putting together a collection of rules and principles that are guaranteed to be as fair and equitable as humanly possible.  Admittedly, a tall order.  But to assist in this endeavor, Rawls employs what he calls a “veil of ignorance,” an ingenious device that keeps us from knowing who we are, what we stand for, or what we will personally benefit from.

Specifically, none of us know in advance if we were born a man or woman, black or white, gay or straight, able-bodied or handicapped, smart or average, etc.  It’s Rawls’ contention that the resulting schematic—unencumbered by self-identity or self-interest—would represent what could properly be called “principles of fairness.”  A theory of justice.  It’s a deceptively simple, yet brilliant methodology.

He explains the hypothetical “veil” thusly:

No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

For example, if none of us knew in advance whether we’d be able-bodied or confined to wheelchairs, we would insist that every building and intersection be handicapped-accessible.  And if we didn’t know whether we’d be born a man or woman, we clearly wouldn’t invent a world where women earned roughly 78-cents for every dollar a man earned, or where women couldn’t vote or voluntarily terminate a pregnancy.

Similarly, no one is going to invent a system of rules and principles that permits slavery or racial discrimination if they, themselves, could be born as African Americans, just as no one is going to willingly restrict the rights of gays if there were a chance they, themselves, could grow up to be homosexuals.

Which brings us to organized labor.  Arguably, Rawls’ veil of ignorance would also yield the establishment of labor unions.  Why?  Because unions are intrinsically fair.  If we didn’t know in advance what job we would have—corporate CEO or NASA rocket scientist….or teacher, airline pilot, nurse, retail clerk, electrician or dishwasher—we would inevitably seek protection for the nominal “working class.”

After all, what potential working person would reject the right to join a workers collective dedicated to procuring good wages and benefits along with the assurance of working with dignity?  Even the Koch brothers—if they were nimble-minded enough to imagine what their lives would be like as Mexican dishwashers—would recognize the virtues of such an arrangement.

Thus, a philosophical examination of labor unions shows them to be not only ethically superior but socially and economically essential.  Unions provide the kind of protection American citizens would have invented on their own, had they started from scratch — instead of being forced to invent it on the fly and in self-defense, within the oppressive confines of the Industrial Revolution.

A theological examination yields the same thing.  Given what we know of human nature and the rapaciousness of the profit motive, unions provide the kind of balanced, resistance-based economic justice that God had in mind when He said, “Let there be balanced, resistance-based economic justice.”  And on the seventh day He rested (as stipulated by the union contract).

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: dmacaray@gmail.com. Read other articles by David.

4 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. MICHAEL said on March 2nd, 2011 at 10:23am #

    Mr.David Macaray: 3/02/2011
    This theorem regarding justice,if,then,is at best pertinacous
    maybe even an oxymoron.
    To have a priori knowledge is to then know and understand
    the time,place,position in life and even picking your own parents. Can
    you even begin to imagine the quandary and ramifications this situation
    would present – to everyone? Put another way,if everyone were given
    the same information at the same time,we might vote, it as an
    impossible mission !
    Thanking you for your attention to this matter, –

  2. commoner3 said on March 2nd, 2011 at 11:44am #

    Re: MICHAEL said on March 2nd, 2011 at 10:23am #

    MICHAEL wrote:
    “Mr.David Macaray: 3/02/2011
    This theorem regarding justice,if,then,is at best pertinacous
    maybe even an oxymoron.
    To have a priori knowledge is to then know and understand
    the time,place,position in life and even picking your own parents….”

    You completely misunderstood the article. The assumption is that everyone knew NOTHING in advance, about his own life, when they established the rules and provisions for a just society.
    Please, re-read the article!

  3. John Andrews said on March 2nd, 2011 at 11:34pm #

    Justice is very simple to define. It is what ordinary people, PROPERLY INFORMED, say it is. This is the underlying principle of trial by jury which, despite its imperfections, is still the best system we have for deciding the issue.

    The real problem is arranging for people to be properly informed. Now that’s a serious can of worms.

    As for unions being a god-given right… well that would be o.k. if there was such a thing as god, which of course there isn’t. In our existing system of non-democracy, non-justice, non-humanity unions are indeed very important – but the bottom line is that if we had a proper humane society we wouldn’t need unions at all.

  4. Maien said on March 3rd, 2011 at 4:33pm #

    Good Point. What a great reminder that when an individual is non- judgemental they are empowered to create choices which are fair to each member of the community.