Fairness. How often to you hear people grizzling how ‘unfair’ something is. You hear a child tell their parents that its unfair they won’t buy them lollies. Its not ‘fair’ that your older sibling cheated at a card game. Maybe its not fair that your lottery numbers never get drawn, or that it only rains on the weekend. Fairness is a nebulous cliche far too overused in our society. What is and isn’t fair is entirely subjective. So why on earth do people still run political or social movement campaigns calling for fairness?
In the past I have complained about using fairness in campaign slogans. Many in the trade union movement love to call for “fair pay.” When questioning the wisdom of this in trade union circles I have been accused of being heartless and right wing. Incidentally that notorious right wing theorist Fredrick Engels had similar criticisms of calls for Fair Pay
In 2011 when I was president of the Wellington Tramways Union in NZ I attended a Council of Trade Unions meeting where plans to campaign against changes to employment law were being made. 4 years earlier the Australian Union movement had run a successful ‘your rights at work’ campaign against attacks defending workers rights against Government attacks. At the NZ CTU meeting in 2011 we were told that focus group finding were that people responded positively to the the campaign name ‘Fairness at work’. So this slogan was adopted. For a variety of reasons the campaign didn’t fire and the changes went through.* Not helping I still believe, was a weak ineffective campaign slogan. Focus groups basically showed that fairness was the least polarising slogan, but as a campaign demand it proved impotent.
A far more effective campaign that I played a part in a couple of years later was the Wellington City Living Wage Campaign. This campaign replicated similar campaigns in the London, San Francisco and elsewhere. In London the campaign won the backing of Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson. The campaign calculates the cost of living in a particular city. This is the pay rate someone would need to pay rent, feed and cloth their children, cover transport costs and generally have a liveable income. Its a tangible, measurable demand that is hard to argue against.
You can’t measure a fair wage. Fairness isn’t tangible or easy to demonstrate. Calling for something like a living wage by contrast is. This is why the living wage campaign has been successful internationally.
Slogans about fairness are overused by far too many political campaigns. Nobel and important campaigns are reduced to the level of a whinging 3 year olds. Fairness campaigns are often coupled with victimhood. These poor vulnerable (insert people and cause here) just need your pity. All people have agency, and in coming together they have power and a collective voice. Instead of wasting this agency by vague calls for fairness, put down some tangible, measurable and most importantly winnable campaign asks. By doing this, things might actually change.
*The NZ Labour-led government has announced it will repeal these changes.