In an opinion piece in the Miami Herald of March 15th, James Canavan, the UNICCO vice-president for labor relations, wrote that while an average wage of $7.79 per hour for UNICCO employees working at the University of Miami “may appear unacceptable from a humanistic perspective, it is an accurate reflection of the market in which UNICCO operates.” This kind of argument can be heard frequently. When less-than-living wages are paid, the free market and “the way the system works” are often invoked. But just what relevance does the free market have in these contexts? That people typically invoke the market, or the way the system works, in opposition to the current strike, rather than merely as part of its diagnosis, suggests that they take these things as a justification for paying poverty wages to workers. However, even if such critics were right that the workings of the free market explain why the UNICCO janitors are paid so poorly, it is quite a step beyond this to hold that the workings of the free market justify those conditions. Explanation and justification are quite different. I may explain why I kick someone by saying that I have a short fuse, but that hardly provides a justification for kicking them. To show why something happens is not to show that it is OK, or acceptable, or right.
I suspect that what lies behind the confusion between explaining the poverty wages of the janitors and justifying them are misapprehensions about just what ‘the free market’ is. One misapprehension is this. We do not really have a free market and, on reflection, almost nobody would want one. When governments pass laws regulating weights and measures, guaranteeing various consumer rights, requiring pharmaceutical companies to list the side-effects of their drugs, regulating pollution, paying subsidies to farmers, giving tax-relief to businesses opening in impoverished areas, imposing minimum wages, and so on and so on, they are tying the hands of the market. Some ideological purists argue that this is why governments should never do any of these things. Most sane people would argue, however, that these are the reasons why we don’t want a completely unshackled market. The real question is not whether or not to have a free market but rather how free a market to have. Market regulations made by a democratic government are, practically by definition, the lowest common consensus about what restriction to place on economic behavior. They are those restrictions that a majority of the people agree on. Nothing stops someone, however, from going beyond these restrictions. A particularly scrupulous pharmaceutical company, for example, may decide to warn consumers of possible side-effects that the FDA does not require them to disclose. This brings me to a second, more fundamental, misapprehension about what the market is.
Above all, “the market” is an abstraction. It is most certainly not some kind of natural force that makes you do things. A kindly salesperson who realizes a cheaper product would better fulfil your needs than a more expensive one you are considering does not have her tongue tied by the market. Exactly the same point goes with respect to wages. If you are deciding how much to offer someone in exchange for certain labor, nothing forces you to offer them the lowest amount you think they will accept. If a starving child offers to mow your lawn for 50 cents, nothing, not the market, not the way the system works, not anything, prevents you from paying them $10. And if (I don’t here say it is, but if) it is wrong to take advantage of someone’s need to pay them less than a living wage, nothing, not the market, not the way the system works, not anything, can make it right.
Blow-hard capitalism and invocations of the market often go hand in hand with the language of personal responsibility. People, it is said, have to take responsibility for their own lives, can’t expect to be given something for nothing, shouldn’t expect handouts, etc. Personal responsibility is a fine virtue. But it cuts both ways. Workers must take personal responsibility, but so must employers and contractors. (And corporations like UNICCO are legally considered as persons.) An employer or contractor is responsible for the kind of pay they offer; an employer or contractor is responsible for the ways in which they might be taking advantage of people’s weaknesses. This is something that UNICCO refuses to understand. The quote from James Canavan with which I began continues: “Since the South Florida market for unskilled labor is in the $6 to $7 range, why should the SEIU vilify UNICCO’s operations at UM? When millions of Americans are without health insurance, why should UNICCO and UM be made a scapegoat for this national issue?” Imagine a pre-Civil War slave owner whining that since slavery was rampant, why should he be criticized for enslaving people?
In short, the market does not make anyone do anything. If you are on a bus that lurches and you fall on top of someone, you can excuse yourself by saying “gravity made me do it.” If you pay the starving child 50 cents when you could have paid them $10, you cannot excuse yourself by saying “the market made me do it.” UNICCO decides what to pay its workers, not the market. The University of Miami decides which companies to contract with, not the market.
My example of the starving child was a simple, and perhaps a simplistic, one. Real-world cases, like the one of the striking janitors, are much more complex, both economically and morally. Nothing I have said here shows, by itself, that UM’s or UNICCO’s behavior is immoral. What I have tried to show is that if there is a moral argument that the workers ought to be paid a living wage for their work and provided with health insurance so that a sickness need not be a total economic catastrophe, one cannot respond to that argument by saying “it’s the market’s fault”. We ALL need to take personal responsibility.
Dr. Simon Evnine is an assistant professor in the philosophy department. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.