Causation and the Chicago Teachers Strike

The Chicago Teachers are striking for various reasons. I support them, and hope they win. It occurred to me — once again — that confusions about causation have muddied the debate here. And since I now apparently write about theories of causation often, why not do it again here.

The effect that we are trying to determine a cause for is “students are not going to school.” I find it fairly uncontroversial that, all things equal, this is a very bad effect. Going to school is good. Learning is good. Students should be in school. But now the million-dollar question: what is causing students to not be in school?

The problem with this question is that there is not a cause. At least two conditions must simultaneously occur for the effect of “students not going to school” to result.

  1. Rahm Emanuel wont give in to the union’s demands.
  2. The teacher union wont give in to Rahm’s demands.

There are two necessary causes. If you remove out either one of them, the effect of “students are not going to school” will not result. Now the question people want answered is who is to blame? That question is completely unanswerable outside of ideological and empirical considerations. It just is. There is no objective fact of the matter on who is to blame. If you believe, for whatever reason, that Rahm should give in to the union’s demands, then Rahm is clearly to blame. And the other way around if you believe the union should give into Rahm’s demands.

But there is no at-a-glance way to assign blame here. There are multiple necessary causes. The inability of people to realize this — not just in the present case but all the time — is the root of all sorts of unnecessary confusion and muddled discourse. It’s maddening to watch.

Conservatives do not actually care about freedom of contract

Complain about working conditions and pay around a conservative and you are sure to hear the following: you agree to those working conditions and pay by choosing to work there. Nevermind that that may be your only employment option or all other employment options have similar working conditions and pay. So long as you choose to work somewhere, the conditions that go along with working there are voluntarily accepted.

At least, they are voluntary until it comes to the requirement to pay union dues. Then it’s a different story. When unions sign a contract with an employer, they typically establish something called dues check-off. Under dues check-off, the employer deducts union dues from employees’ paychecks and sends them directly to the union. This process is preferred because it is much more efficient and prevents people from free-riding, i.e. utilizing the union representation without helping to fund it.

Conservatives do not like this. So they establish right-to-work laws. They even go so far as claiming that dues check-off violates worker’s free speech rights because unions might use those dues for political reasons. Samuel Alito’s latest Supreme Court opinion includes such an argument, even though the case had nothing to do with that issue.

But how on earth does this violate anyone’s free speech rights? Don’t people voluntarily choose to work at a place, thereby accepting all its conditions? Don’t people have the option of quitting their job and working somewhere else? If people do not want to pay union dues, then they shouldn’t work at a place that requires them to be paid. Right?

The reality is that conservatives do not really care about the freedom of contract nonsense they talk about when it comes to workplace coercion. If the coercion involves management stomping on workers, then everything is fine because the workers agree to it. If the coercion involves mandatory union dues, then a horrible rights violation has occurred. What a joke.

Unions and inequality

Declining union density is one of the contributing factors to the last few decades of rising inequality. Estimates on its impact vary, but one often-cited study found that declining union density accounts for around 20 percent of the recent inequality growth. The Economic Policy Institute had a blog post yesterday with graphs and other resources spelling out more exactly the relationship between unions and inequality. Here, I thought I would explain exactly how unions are supposed to reduce inequality.

The way unions work is quite simple. Workers at a workplace join together and then bargain collectively on workplace issues such as pay, benefits, and conditions. Because union workers bargain together and have the ability at times to shut down production, they can win higher compensation. So when a company becomes more productive, unionized workers are more able to capture some of its productivity increases for themselves, instead of the increases flowing just to shareholders and management.

This process generates more equality on two fronts then: it both increases labor’s share of productivity increases while decreasing the share of executive and owners. When union coverage is sufficiently dense, their bargaining power also has spillover effects that increase the income share of even non-unionized workers. When unions lose their bargaining strength however, labor loses its ability to capture some of the productivity increases, and inequality rises. That is, economic growth and middle-class income growth becomes decoupled. This is the story of the last few decades.

Perhaps there is some other way to keep inequality down that does not involve unions, but alternative ideas are far and few between. There are some plausible ways to do so purely through the state — tax-and-transfer programs for instance — but for those ideas to ever to be implemented, they will require a mobilized and funded political force that only organized labor is really capable of delivering.