Saturday, April 23, 2011

Unions and Strikes

An architect took a job with the government job, which required that she join the union. She did so, even though she did not believe professionals should unionize. That conflict came to a head when the union went on strike and she was asked to walk picket lines even though her projects needed her continued attention. Which trumped the other: her duty to the union or her duty to her work?

Ethics come into play whenever we have to decide where to draw the line between what we will and will not do in a conflicted situation. Some ethics, like that advocated by Kant, emphasize the purity of the position we should take in such situations, doing what we believe to be right regardless of the possible negative consequences to others or us as a result of our actions. Other ethics, like utilitarianism, takes a more contextual approach to problems, urging us to assess the possible outcomes or effects of one action versus another before we decide which course to take.

That difference may reflect different personality types as well: those who see things as black or white versus those who see them in shades of gray. Architects, generally, fall into the latter category. Not only does the design process demand that we deal with a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, but the buildings that often result from that process almost always have permeable or overlapping areas that are neither completely public nor absolutely private, but partly one and the other at the same time. While buildings may appear clear cut, with definite edges and distinct dimensions, the designed environments we inhabit comprise almost entirely of shades of gray.

That does not necessarily apply to our principles, however. There, shades of gray can look like a shirking of our duties and a shunning of our responsibilities. That question faced the architect in this situation, in which her obligations as a member of a union on strike run counter to those she owes her projects as an architect. A strike represents a black and white choice, a cessation of work, in a world of grey, in which the flow of money and materials involved in the construction of buildings continues unabated. That becomes even more problematic, ethically, if we disagree with the organization to which we have an obligation, as in the case of this architect, who did not believe that professions should belong to unions.

While she accepted joining the union as a requirement of her job, should this architect go on strike when the union demands it even if she doesn’t want to? How do her obligations to her union compare to her duty to her projects or to her beliefs as a professional? The answer such questions may depend upon how much we are willing to pay the consequences of our convictions. The architect here can disregard the strike and disobey the union for reasons of conscience, but she may lose her job or have to pay for her principles, such as paying a fine to the union.

She might also consider the “both-and” solutions that characterize the shades-of-gray world of architects. She could, for instance, not go to her office or cross the picket line, but still make herself available to and check in on her projects to ensure that they continue to go well. Or she might respect the wishes of her union by going on strike, but refuse to stand in a picket line or advocate for an organization to which she belongs by virtue of her employment, but not her beliefs. Design thinking can improve not only our environment, but also our ethics. 

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