For over a century Catholic social teaching has pushed for living wages, and many churches are part of a living wage movement that is creating real justice victories for low-wage workers. The living wage movement believes that people who work full-time should not have to raise their families in poverty, as millions now do. There are two fronts in the living wage movementthe effort to raise the national federal minimum wage and the effort to create higher living wages on the state and local level.
The current federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour went into effect on Sept. 1, 1997. According to the Congressional Research Service, if the minimum wage were adjusted to allow it to retain its 1968 value, it would now have to be at least $8.68 per hour. Efforts have been underway in Congress to raise the national minimum wage to $7.25 an hour and link future increases to congressional pay raises. This would increase wages for nearly 15 million workers.
On the local level, 22 states and the District of Columbia require higher minimum wages than the federal minimum. Washington State requires a minimum wage of $7.63 an hour. Additionally, more than 190 cities have already enacted laws that raise the local minimum. Santa Fe’s, at $9.50 an hour, leads the way. These efforts to assist workers to earn living wages are explicitly supported by over 100 years of Catholic social teaching.
History of the Movement
The primary reason there is a living wage movement is that the federal minimum wage has consistently failed to provide workers with enough to support themselves and their families. Thus advocacy on the federal, state and local levels is critical. From its start, the movement has been made up of local coalitions of community groups, labor organizations and interfaith religious denominations.
The first local victory by the current living wage movement came during the mid-1990’s in Baltimore and emerged from actions taken by a coalition of churches and labor organizations. Fifty Baltimore churches approached the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to join in creating an organization of churches, labor union members and low-wage service workers. Churches were seeing an increase in the use of soup kitchens and pantries by the working poor. Low-wage workers were often turning to food stamps, publicly financed health care and private assistance from churches to make up the difference from their low-wage work.
The churches concluded that minimum-wage jobs with no benefits were not helping people escape poverty. The labor unions were concerned about the privatization of government jobs in areas like janitorial and food services, which replaced good public jobs with low-wage private jobs. Together they concluded that private companies were paying low salaries in order to win low-bid government contracts. To them, this was municipal subsidization of poverty.
The Baltimore coalition created a local campaign. Members worked together for a law that would require businesses that had contracts with the city to pay their workers at least a living wage. Churches and labor contributed people and funds to educate the public about the problem of low wages and to lobby for the living wage bill.
Thanks to the work of the coalition, Baltimore ultimately enacted a local living wage law in July 1996. City contractors had to pay a minimum of $6.10 an hour in 1996, when the federal minimum was $4.25, rising in annual increments to $7.70 an hour in 1999. The goal of the law was to place the wage at a level sufficient to lift a family of four over the poverty level. The measure was estimated to apply to between 2,000 and 3,000 workers. The success of this effort in Baltimore inspired the development of other national, state and local living wage coalitions made up of labor, community and religious organizations.
Nationwide, millions of workers need a raise. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 14.9 million workers would receive a significant increase in their hourly wage rate if the minimum were raised from $5.15 to $7.25 by 2008. Of these workers, 6.6 million currently earn less than $7.25 and would be directly affected by an increase. An additional 8.3 million workers who earn slightly more than the minimum would also likely benefit from an increase because of the spillover effect on other workers. Eighty percent of workers whose wages would be raised by such an increase are adults. The majority of the affected workers would be women. African-American and Hispanic workers would also benefit.
No one claims that minimum wages are sufficient to pay for rent, child care, food, health care and utilities. Do these people therefore simply go without? No. Our families and communities pitch in and supplement the low wages of family members who do not earn enough. Our churches and social service agencies provide child care, food pantries, financial assistance and soup kitchens. Our local, state and federal governments provide medical care, utility assistance and help with the costs of food. Since the community at large will pay the cost one way or another, would it not be better for working people to be able to support themselves directly rather than having to turn to family members, churches and the government?
There is widespread popular support for living wages. A survey in April 2000 found 94 percent agreed that as a country, we should make sure that people who work full-time should be able to earn enough to keep their families out of poverty. Twenty-two states and 190 cities did not just spontaneously enact 50 living wage ordinances. These represent a cumulation of intense organizing and years of education and advocacy work.
Though many groups have worked for living wages, the community organization ACORN has been the most persistent and consistent advocate nationwide. (Their organization maintains an excellent online source for further study: the Living Wage Resource Center. The Web site of Interfaith Worker Justice is also a good national resource for faith-based organizing and solidarity with low-wage workers.)
Support From Catholic Teaching
The Catholic Church was the first religious community to stand up for living wages over a century ago, and Catholic social teaching since then has continued its vigorous advocacy. Monsignor Martínez explained the church’s long tradition to a New York Times reporter, while discussing a successful effort to raise the local minimum wage to $9.50 an hour: The church’s position on social justice is long established. I think, unfortunately, it’s one of our best kept secrets.
Catholic teaching on living wages started in 1891. Pope Leo XIII’s papal letter Rerum Novarum recognized the right of every worker to receive wages sufficient to provide for a family. Pope Pius XI reaffirmed the principle of the need for a living wage, writing in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), In the first place, the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family.
The U.S. Catholic bishops gave the need for a living wage priority in their Statement on Church and Social Order (1940):
The first claim of labor, which takes priority over any claim of the owners to profits, respects the right to a living wage. By the term living wage we understand a wage sufficient not merely for the decent support of the workingman himself but also of his family. A wage so low that it must be supplemented by the wage of wife and mother or by the children of the family before it can provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter together with essential spiritual and cultural needs cannot be regarded as a living wage. Furthermore, a living wage means sufficient income to meet not merely the present necessities of life but those of unemployment, sickness, death, and old age as well.
Opponents have always argued that wage levels should be left to the market. In 1961, in the encyclical Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII responded to that claim and proclaimed that a living wage was clearly a justice issue:
We therefore consider it our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.
Pope John Paul II went further. In On Human Work (1981) he wrote that payment of living wages was a critical criterion for determining the legitimacy of the entire economic system:
Hence in every case a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly. It is not the only means of checking, but it is a particularly important one and in a sense the key means.
In their 1986 letter, Economic Justice for All, the U.S. Catholic bishops reaffirmed that payment of just wages is the initial step in combating poverty and put the issue squarely on the social justice agenda for the American economy: The first line of attack against poverty must be to build and sustain a healthy economy that provides employment opportunities at just wages for all adults who are able to work. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, refusing to pay just wages, even if allowed by law, is a violation of the Seventh Commandment.
Monsignor Martínez and various church groups are squarely within the tradition in advocating for living wages for workers on the local, state and federal level.
Recent victories on the state and local level by coalitions of religious, labor and community groups have provided a surge of energy and enthusiasm for those who support living wages and self-sufficiency for all workers. The challenge is to take that to the national level and increase the numbers of workers who are entitled by law to earn a living wage. By the actions of the living wage movementand the life breathed into the Catholic social tradition by church groups and people like Monsignor Martínezour nation is moving toward the goal defined by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937: that all our working men and women should receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
Our nation, so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population, should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1937
The Popes on Labor
On the Condition of Workers (Rerum Novarum) Pope Leo XIII, 1891
Equity therefore commands that public authority show proper concern for the worker so that from what he contributes to the common good he may receive what will enable him, housed, clothed, and secure, to live his life without hardship. Whence, it follows that all those measures ought to be favored which seem in any way capable of benefiting the condition of workers (No. 51).
The Fortieth Year (Quadragesimo Anno) Pope Pius XI, 1931
Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman (No. 71).
On Human Work (Laborem Exercens) Pope John Paul II, 1981
Work remains a good thing, not only because it is useful and enjoyable, but also because it expresses and increases the worker’s dignity. Through work we not only transform the world, we are transformed ourselves, becoming more a human being (No. 9).
History teaches us that organizations of this type [unions] are an indispensable element in social life, especially in industrialized societies. The purpose of unions is not simply to defend the existing wages and prerogatives of the fraction of workers who belong to them, but also to enable workers to make positive and creative contributions to the firm, the community, and the larger society (No. 20).
Yet the workers’ rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits. The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers’ rights within each country and all through the world’s economy (No. 17).
Workers not only want fair pay, they also want to share in the responsibility and creativity of the very work process. They want to feel that they are working for themselvesan awareness that is smothered in a bureaucratic system where they only feel themselves to be cogs in a huge machine moved from above (No. 13).
The Hundredth Year (Centesimus Annus) Pope John Paul II, 1991
Profit, though it plays a legitimate role, is not the only indicator of a firm’s condition. The people in it might be humiliated and offended. The aim of a business is not simply profit, but to form a particular group at the service of the whole of society (No. 35).