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Justice for Wage Earners: Retrieving Insights from the Catholic Community

  • Patricia Ann Lamoureux (a1)


Throughout much of the history of Catholic social teaching, the question of wage-earner justice has been of central import. In response to the condition of workers who do not receive sufficient compensation to maintain a decent livelihood for themselves and their families, a theory of just wage has evolved. There is wisdom to be gleaned from the tradition that can enrich the contemporary debate on just wage. The challenge lies in discerning what is normative from that which is socially and culturally biased. It will be informative to explore the meaning of just wage from a wide spectrum of perspectives, including the sometimes forgotten voice of women. This article examines the contributions of several levels of the Catholic faith community and retrieves essential insights that can contribute to a revitalized just wage discourse.



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1 A fundamental assumption of the 1996 “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” is that once welfare recipients get a job, any job, they can move up and out of poverty. This, in fact, has not occurred as expected because welfare recipients most often move into low-paid, dead-end jobs which do not lead them out of poverty. See Edin, Kathryn and Lein, Laura, Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997), 119; Newman, Katherine S., No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).

2 The Census Bureau recently reported that the percentage of households living in poverty dropped to the lowest point in more than two decades. Yet, about 12% of American families earn less than $10,000 annually and the median net worth of families in this income bracket is only $3600. See Buss, James A. and Paul Peterson, G. S.J., “Catholic Social Thought and the Changing Pattern of Wealth Ownership in the United States,”, 7.

3 Almade, Frank D. notes that the fathers of the church did not directly address the question of remuneration for work, but they laid a foundation for later developments with their view of the moral dimension of homo economicus (Just Wages for Church Employees [New York: Peter Lang, 1993], 3). See also William Countryman, L., The Rich Christian in the Church of the Early Empire: Contradictions and Accommodations (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1980) and Ramsey, Boniface, Beginning to Read the Fathers (New York: Paulist, 1985).

4 References to papal encyclicals and the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter on economic justice are taken from Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage, ed. O'Brien, David J. and Shannon, Thomas A. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992).

5 Rerum Novarum, nos. 16–17, 33–34.

6 Leo XIII formulated his critique of free-market liberals based on the “dictate of natural justice” and the Thomistic “maxim of justice in exchange.” According to the maxim of justice in exchange, for wages to be considered just there should be equality in the contracts of exchange and equality in the bargaining process which led to the determination of the wage. See Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologiae (New York: Benziger, 1947), II–II, 58, 2c and 5c; 77, 4 ad 1; and Flynn, Frederick E., Wealth and Money in the Economic Philosophy of St. Thomas (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1942), 4045.

7 Murphy, William, “Rerum Novarum (1891),” in A Century of Catholic Social Thought: Essays on ‘Rerum Novarum’ and Nine Other Key Documents, ed. Weigel, George and Royal, Robert (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1991), 20.

8 Rerum Novarum, no. 17.

9 Buss and Peterson, “Catholic Social Thought and the Changing Pattern of Wealth Ownership in the United States.” Richard Camp comments that rather than making everyone a wage earner by eliminating private property as socialism proposed, Leo XIII wanted to generalize the property institution and “deproletarize” the working classes. The hope was that such a reform would redistribute the wealth more justly. See Camp, Richard, “The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” in Readings in Moral Theology No. 5, ed. Curran, Charles E. and McCormick, Richard A. S.J., (New York: Paulist, 1986), 3739.

10 Camp, , “The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” 40. Camp maintains that this is an understandable caution, “for had the family wage been accepted as a basic principle in the labor contract, which it had not been, it might have worked against the family; in times of unemployment, management might have been reluctant to hire a laborer with a large family because of the extra expense involved. Even if this difficulty could have been overcome, the technical problems of implementing such a policy were more than enough to keep Leo from declaring it as absolute. He felt competent to discuss only the underlying moral principles for the redemption of labor, not the techniques for bringing it to fruition.” This section draws from Rerum Novarum, nos. 9–46.

11 Cronin, John F., “Forty Years Later: Reflections,” Readings in Moral Theology No. 5, p. 73.

13 Quadragessimo Anno, nos. 70–74.

14 Archives of the Catholic University of America (ACUA), National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), Social Action Department (SAD), “The Encyclical, ‘Reconstructing the Social Order,’ and Wages;” File, Linna Bresette, Box 26.

15 Mater et Magistra addresses for the first time the worldwide dimensions of the question of just wages.

16 Mater et Magistra, no. 71.

17 Ibid., 68–72.

18 Charles, Rodger S.J., Christian Social Witness and Teaching: The Catholic Tradition from Genesis to Centesimus Annus, Vol. 2 (Herefordshire, England: Gracewing, 1998), 300.

19 Laborem Exercens, no. 19.

20 David Hollenbach maintains “the major theological contribution of the encyclical … lies in the grounding it provides for a very positive evaluation of human work through the interpretation of the imago Dei as expressed in the subjectivity of workers” (“Human Work and the Story of Creation: Theology and Ethics,” in Laborem Exercens, Co-Creation and Capitalism: John Paul II's Laborem Exercens, ed. Houck, John W. and Williams, Oliver F. [Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1983], 65). See also, Baum, Gregory, The Priority Of Labor (New York: Paulist, 1982), 13.

21 Laborem Exercens, no. 19.

22 Ibid., no. 17.

23 Ibid., no. 8.

24 Ryan, John A., A Living Wage (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 6771.

25 Curran, Charles E., American Catholic Social Ethics: Twentieth-Century Approaches (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 37.

26 Ryan, , A Living Wage, 8283.

27 Ibid., 119.

28 Ibid., 107–08.

29 Ibid., 127, 135–36. Ryan distinguishes three separate levels of wealth. He judges that everyone has a natural right to the first level, wealth sufficient to provide the necessities of a basic living wage. He seemed to regard the second level—wealth sufficient to provide the conventional necessities and comforts of one's social plan or station in life—typical of upper-middle-class wealth, as the utmost limit to material possessions. The third level, wealth superfluous to maintaining standards of decent livelihood for one's station in life, seems to be morally unacceptable. See Hinze, Christine Firer, “Bridge Discourse on Wage Justice,” The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (1991), n. 8. See also Coleman, John A., An American Strategic Theology (New York: Paulist, 1982), 9495.

30 Curran, , American Catholic Social Ethics, 3841. Lawrence Glickman maintains that the two ideas–living wage and workers thinking about themselves as consumers developed in tandem. In consumerist terms, wages came to be defined positively in need-based language. While stressing needs and desires as the basis of a living wage, advocates acknowledged the relation between wages and production which, in their view, lay at the root of wealth (A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society [New York: Cornell University Press, 1997], 20–21, 68–77).

31 Ryan, , A Living Wage, 250–52.

32 Hunnicutt, Benjamin K., “Monsignor John A. Ryan And The Shorter Hours of Labor: A Forgotten Vision of ‘Genuine' Progress,’Catholic Historical Review 64/3 (July 1983): 401.

34 Formerly the U.S. Catholic bishops' National Catholic War Council, the NCWC was born in 1922. The present structure is known as the U.S. Catholic Conference.

35 ACUA, NCWC/USCC National Council of Catholic Women Collection; Files, History (1930–1962) and Miscellaneous pamphlets, Box 1.

36 ACUA, NCCW, “National Council of Catholic Women: Monthly Message to Affiliated Organizations,” no. 128 (September 1932); File, Early History and Correspondence, Box 1.

37 ACUA, NCWC, SAD, “The Social Action Committee of the National Council of Catholic Women;” File, Social Action Committee (1945), Box 28. Just wage advocacy and other activities related to wage-earner justice for women workers were achieved primarily through the NCCW's Committee on Women in Industry, which later became the Social Action Committee. The Industrial Committee had three aims: to promote the study of problems among women in industry and industrial problems affecting women in the home; to study Catholic social principles related to industry; and to cooperate with the Catholic Conference on Industrial Problems.

38 Archives of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland (ACND), Alice Ayers, “Biography,” Box 50.3.34. Morrissy served on Economic Advisory Councils for both Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. She was the first American woman to be awarded the Medal of the Cross of Honor, a papal honor reserved for those who perform outstanding service to others.

39 The Institute on Industry developed in 1936 and was jointly sponsored by the NCWC's Social Action Dept. It was the first Catholic summer school for women workers in the U.S. The aims of the Institute were to equip women to be leaders in the workplace, to understand the teaching of the encyclicals on justice in the workplace, i.e., right to organize and collective bargaining, right to a just wage (ACUA, NCWC, SAD, “The Institute on Industry;” File, Institute on Industry for Women Workers, Box 29).

40 ACUA, NCCW, Mary Hawks, “What Do We Mean By Equality?” File, Important Speeches at NCCW Conventions (19201937), Box 1.

41 ACND, Morrissy, “Labor Organizations,” Radio Address, 1941; “Assembly line living getting women down says Dr. Morrissy,” Unknown newspaper article, 3/31/59, Box 50.3.34.

42 ACND, Morrissy, “Why Women Work,” Lecture at NCCW Conference on Women in Industry, 10/2/29; “The Status of Women: to be equal does not mean to be identical,” Vital Speeches of the Day 15/2 (November 1, 1948), 55–60, Box 50.3.34.

Alice Kessler-Harris writes that in the early part of the twentieth century, women constituted close to twenty-five percent of the industrial work force. Even before the depression, the working poor were providers; their work was part of a long tradition in which wages were part of their contribution to family well-being. While jobs typically belonged to “providers,” who were married men, “the scales of justice” encompassed widows, single women, and married women with unemployed or disabled husbands as well. These false images of women who were either dependent or needed only to support themselves did a particular disservice to Black women, who were eight times as likely to earn wages as white women. Thus, the family wage, a system in which men became the breadwinners while their wives and children remained domestic never worked. The family wage has always been a myth because only a minority of men have ever been able to earn enough single-handedly to support a family. Kessler-Harris, Alice, A Woman's Wage: Historical Meanings and Social Consequences (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 311.

43 The NWTUL was the first national body dedicated to organizing women workers and was “the most effective source of labor support for women in the early twentieth century” (Foner, Philip S., Women and the American Labor Movement: From Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I [New York: Free Press, 1979], 290).

44 ACUA, NCCW, “Report of the Industrial Committee, 1942;” File, Institute on Industry for Women Workers, Box 26.

45 Henry, Alice, “The Living Wage.Life and Labor 3 (July 1913) in Women's Trade Union League Publications, Microfilm, reel 5. The living wage and the minimum wage for women had incorporated sharply differentiated conceptions of the needs of male and female workers. Most male workers rejected the distinction between living wages and minimum wages because they feared the minimum wage might become a national standard for wages. See Kessler-Harris, A Woman's Wage, 13–15. In addition, as Lawrence Glickman points out, male labor leaders sometimes endorsed minimum wages for poorly paid women workers but not for union members because these wages were defined as a level well below the consumerist version of wages they demanded (A Living Wage, 136–139, 158).

46 Women wage earners were accused of threatening the American standard because they were perceived to have fewer needs than men; therefore a lower standard applied to them. See Kessler-Harris, , A Woman's Wage, 2731; Glickman, , A Living Wage, 2731, 78–91.

47 Economic Justice for All, no. 179.

48 Ibid., no. 39.

49 Ibid., nos. 69–90, 103.

50 Ibid., no. 93.

51 Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 28.

52 Naughton, Michael and Alford, Helen, “Just Wages: Justice and the Subjective Dimension of Work in Human Resources,” in Managing as if Faith Matters: Christian Social Principles in the Modern Organization (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 288–89, n. 53.

53 Sammon, Peter J., “The Living Wage Movement,” America, 26 August-2 September 2000, pp. 1619; Pollin, Robert and Luce, Stephanie, The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy (New York: New Press, 1998).

54 Massaro, Thomas, Catholic Social Teaching and United States Welfare Reform (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1998), 26. Massaro makes this point in the context of explaining John A. Ryan's theory of a living wage. See Ryan, , A Living Wage, 45, 79, 244, 249.

55 Naughton, and Alford, , Managing as if Faith Matters, 126–27.

56 See Geoghegan, Thomas, Which Side Are You On? (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1991), 150–55, 267–70; Yates, Michael D., Why Unions Matter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), 1519, 150.

57 Higgins, George G. with Bole, William, Organized Labor and the Church (New York: Paulist, 1993), 181–90.

58 This is based upon a “neutral” view of the market, one that treats men and women equally, and an understanding of the wage concept rooted in the interplay of supply and demand.

59 For an excellent discussion on the complexities of the family wage see Christensen, Bryce, “Debating ‘The Family Wage’: Summary of a Discussion,” in The Family Wage: Work, Gender and Children in the Modern Economy, ed. Christensen, Bryce (Washington, DC: Rockford Institute, 1988), 101–29.

Historically, and through much of the 20th century, the family wage defined a social ideal. It meant a wage sufficient for a man to support his wife and children. In the popular imagination, family wage reflected a sense of what was right and just. It rested on what seemed to many to be a desirable view of social order, a world in which men could support families and receive services of women; women would be dependent on men and stay out of labor force. See Kessler-Harris, , A Woman's Wage, 9.

Lawrence Glickman maintains that the family wage had a considerably narrower focus than did most demands for the living wage because it stressed poor families and subsistence rather than organized male workers and consumption (The Living Wage, 158–160, 211).

60 Christine Firer Hinze provides keen insights on how to renovate the family living wage in “Bridge Discourse on Wage Justice.‘

61 Globalization is generally defined as the extension of free-market economic systems, freedom, and democracy throughout the world with the aid of new information technology. It has both objective and subjective aspects: it describes the way nation-states, the international system of states, individuals, and humankind as a whole interact with one another; and it refers to the way people consciously understand themselves to be in “one place.” See Bole, William, “Tales of Globalization,” America, 4 December 1999, p. 15; Schreiter, Robert J. C.P.P.S., The New Catholicity: Theology between the Global and the Local (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), 9; Howland Sanks, T. S.J., “Globalization And The Church's Social Mission,” Theological Studies 60 (1999): 625–51.

62 For an excellent analysis of the relation of trade and jobs, see Just Trading: On the Ethics and Economics of International Trade (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).

63 Destro, Robert A., “Laborem Exercens (1981)” in A Century of Catholic Social Thought, 156.

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