Consumers’ Obligations in Labor Disputes

Over at The Business Ethics Blog, Chris MacDonald has a very
interesting post
on ethical issues surrounding the labor dispute at the Westin
St. Francis, the site of the 2010 Pacific Division meeting of the American
Philosophical Association.  Specifically,
he asks what obligations the existence of such a dispute might impose upon
consumers.  Should consumers stay away
from businesses when unions are calling for a boycott, or are on strike?

Chris raises a number of good points in his post, and I
won’t repeat them here.  And I won’t try,
just yet, to answer the big question of what consumers have
all-things-considered reason to do in such situations in general, or in the
situation faced by the APA in particular. 
But I do want to set out a few questions that I think are worth
addressing in the course of trying to answer that larger question.  I’d be curious to hear what PEA Soupers think
about them, as well as what they think about the other issues Chris raises.

First, one might ask whether in the absence of any specific
information regarding the details of the particular dispute, there is any prima
facie reason to suppose that one side of the dispute is correct.  That is, do we
think that unions or management are, as a general matter, more likely to have
the right stance on whatever empirical  or
moral issues are at stake.

Second, do we have any prima facie reason to take a side that is independent of our
beliefs about which side is correct on the particular empirical and normative
issues at stake?  Perhaps we might think
that because union members are more vulnerable, as a rule, than stockholders,
we should take the side of the union when we don’t have any information about
which side is correct (or perhaps even when we do have such information but our
uncertainty about the correct resolution of the issues falls short of a certain

Third, just what
taking a side, anyway? 
It seems clear that deciding to stay at a hotel just because the union is boycotting it would constitute taking
sides against the union.  But what about
an agent who, antecedent to the boycott, made plans to stay at the
soon-to-be-boycotted hotel?  Would his
failure to cancel his reservation after the initiation of the boycott
constitute taking sides against the union? 
Would, as Chris thinks, cancelling your reservation in such
circumstances constitute taking sides with the union?  Is there anything one can do that wouldn’t constitute taking a side?  I tend to think that there are distinctions
between causing negative consequences for B, being morally responsible for
causing negative consequences for B, and taking sides against B.  But it’s not clear to me how much rides on
these distinctions in these kinds of cases.

4 Replies to “Consumers’ Obligations in Labor Disputes

  1. Thanks for bringing up this issue, Matt, and for the link to CM’s v. good post.
    “Would, as Chris thinks, cancelling your reservation in such circumstances constitute taking sides with the union?” I would think so, if the dispute is your reason to cancel it.
    “Is there anything one can do that wouldn’t
    constitute taking a side?” Proceeding as before, without defending either side.

  2. Perhaps perfect neutrality would require canceling your reservation for half of the nights originally booked, dividing your time between the boycotted hotel and one that is union approved.
    There’s another preliminary question that might be mentioned here, although perhaps it shouldn’t be discussed until Matt’s original questions have been thoroughly discussed. (I don’t mean to “threadjack” Matt.) This is whether there is any ethical relevance to the difference between a boycott and a strike.

  3. I’m puzzled that so few have commented on this thread. My perception – and perhaps it was an inaccurate one – was that a lot of APA members felt fairly strongly that they had a kind of moral obligation not to support the Westin St. Francis in light of the union’s boycott. I guess my post assumed that most of these individuals – like I – lacked much specific information regarding the particular details of the dispute, and so that their judgment was based on a kind of presumptive reasoning. I’m curious to know what the nature of that reasoning is – or if I was wrong about my assumption that people do judge themselves to have a moral obligation to support the union (or to not support the hotel) in this particular case.

  4. Matt,
    I think we should support unions because on the whole stronger unions make our society better and more just. For this reason, even when I don’t have a whole lot of information about a particular issue, I’ll tend to side with Labor if I have to take sides.
    One minor philosophical point: I’m not saying anybody has a moral obligation to do anything in particular here. I’m just explaining (and attempting to justify) my own tendencies.
    I think Dale’s question is interesting, too. My view is that a boycott is significantly different from a strike. The main reason is that when a union strikes, they (I mean their membership) are putting a lot on the line; they are bearing a large sacrifice, and thus demonstrating that the issues at stake are very important to them. I am more willing to go to a bunch of trouble (swallow the cost of canceling a reservation, say, or move a session to an off-site location that’s bound to have very low attendance) to avoid crossing a picket line of striking workers than to honor a boycott.
    I’d like to add that I had no plans to attend the Pacifics this year, and, more importantly, that I don’t do ethics.

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