Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, signed in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt as the last major piece of New Deal legislation. The Fair Labor Standards Act established the federal minimum wage and required premium pay for overtime work.
The minimum wage concept began with a series of state laws enacted early in the twentieth century, largely under the impetus of Catholic social thought. As Leo XIII argued in Rerum Novarum (1893),
Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice. In these and similar questions, however - such as, for example, the hours of labor in different trades, the sanitary precautions to be observed in factories and workshops, etc. - in order to supersede undue interference on the part of the State, especially as circumstances, times, and localities differ so widely, it is advisable that recourse be had to societies or boards such as We shall mention presently, or to some other mode of safeguarding the interests of the wage-earners; the State being appealed to, should circumstances require, for its sanction and protection.
Better, Leo believed, that labor organizations and employers negotiate just wages and fair working hours, but failing this, the State would be appealed to for sanction and protection. Monsignor John Ryan built on this the precept of the living wage; Ryan and the Church advocated for minimum wages first at the local and then the federal level.
The minimum wage was not indexed for inflation, however, and has not kept pace with the cost of living. A full-time worker earning the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour will draw an annual salary of less than $15,000 dollars, leaving the worker below the poverty line if they are supporting a child (or a spouse). It happens that two Catholic legislators, Representative George Miller of California and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, are sponsoring legislation to boost that wage to $10.10/hour by 2015 – just enough (barely) to keep a family of three out of poverty at today’s threshold.
The laborer is worth his wages, and the Church remains on the front line preaching a living wage. Tune in today (Tuesday June 25, 2013) at 2:30pm EST to see Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton CA – Chair of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development – testify before the Senate Labor Committee regarding the minimum wage.