/ Because it isn’t nice to compare. /
Labour disputes are ugly things for a number of reasons. One of those reasons, rarely considered, is that they open up contractual details of employment for all to see.
According to Tim Bousquet, tonight’s Regional Council meeting may include a public discussion about transit operators’ wages as compared with management’s:
@Tim_Bousquet: @checkraiseNS Councillors want to discuss city vs union wage figures in public. That’s good, but I think they’re missing the point [more]
How would you like it if how much you make, how many sick days you get, and so on became coffee shop chatter?
Having your books opened up for public scrutiny is an occupational hazard of sorts for public employees. Indeed, public accountability is a matter of utmost importance among our public institutions. But at the end of the day, people who work for public entities ‘on the shop floor’ really didn’t sign up for this.
One of the ugliest things we see coming from this opening of contractual details is the tendency to compare wages across disciplines. Commenters on news articles lament that bus operators make more than teachers and EMTs (neither of which I have seen absolutely confirmed, but that is beside the point), and that therefore they should quit their whining and get back to work — as though there is some inherent value to teachers and EMTs that bus operators don’t measure up to.
Obviously, this discourse is a little bit insulting to bus operators. Although I also agree that teachers and EMTs are underpaid, I don’t see this as a necessary point to establish when considering the pay for, take the example, bus operators.
We see lots of examples where truly, legitimately good and valid arguments are being made, but where the arguer falls victim to the temptation to engage in unnecessary comparisons. For example, this article takes on the problem that women earn less than men, which is indeed a problem in our society, and one that we have to fix. However, to make the point that women (and female-dominated professions) are underpaid, the author points out that “plumbers still earn more than nurses”.
To me, both nurse and plumber are highly skilled occupations, and essential to the healthy operation of our society. It is in no way clear to me that either the nurse or the plumber should be paid more than the other. However, if one does want to make that argument (or feels that society should really tackle this question), we need to work a few things out. Again, I ask, do we really want to get into it?
Well, if you insist …
Assessing what someone is “worth”
If you’re sold on the idea that we need to come up with a way of assessing someone’s worth, first you need to get society to make some decisions around what things it values, and should be deemed compensable.
Let’s unpack the implication from above that plumbers ought not to make more than nurses. Seemingly, someone who adheres to this view must be making a calculation about the amount of good provided to society, and in this instance it’s probably that nurses provide primary medical care, while plumbers deal with sewage, drainage, and water systems. However, the argument could easily be made that plumbers are in the health care business, too: Plumbers make sanitary delivery of water and handling of waste a possibility, the absence of which would surely have negative health implications for a community.
So it turns out that your system of evaluation would have to be very complex, indeed. In just this one example, you have to go a fair bit down the chain to really define what it is to provide ‘health’. And good luck getting a society to agree on whether providing health care to sick people is more valuable than helping to create and maintain systems that make health possible in the first place.
But let’s get out of the weeds a bit; maybe the topic of health is an especially picky issue that needs more working out, but generally, this task of evaluation is not so hard to do.
Not so lucky.
Ask ten people “what is the most important thing someone can do to contribute to society at large?” and you’ll get ten different answers. They’re sure to vary from topics like scientific discovery to religion; inspiration to law enforcement; health provision to education; art to business acumen. Lack of agreement on what is most valuable in society challenges the idea that there could ever exist a worth-continuum on which we could reliably assign everybody a place.
It seems clear that appeals to comparison are non-sequiturs because everybody’s values are different, and there are no clear-cut lines. If we want to keep living in a society that divvies up currency based on the things that we do, we first have to find a way to decide what people are worth in a way that doesn’t include an assessment of what they’re worth when compared with others. After all, how could we have a good system of determining what someone is worth compared to another when we don’t have a good system for determining what either one of them is worth?
Maybe it’s not possible to come up with a good and fair worth-evaluation system, and the only real solution is to change our society from one that divvies up currency based on the things that we do into one that truly values everybody (because the intrinsic value of the person is, I hope, something that everyone can agree on). But until we have it figured out, stop with the salary comparisons. They’re petty, demeaning, and perhaps worst of all, they don’t make sense.
UPDATE (Nov 14, 11:30am): A Facebook friend made the great point that “There is a huge difference between comparing the wages of teachers and bus drivers and between management in enterprise and its workers”. I wanted to point out that yes, I agree that there is a big difference.
Flatter salary structures in organizations are better, and the only way to know the flatness of the salary structure is to compare across the organization. It’s the cross-discipline stuff I’m worried about. I’ll be glad to see the difference in pay between MT’s workers and management.