A Bare Minimum

The minimum hourly wage

The minimum hourly wage

We are against slavery.

So, how little in wages may we pay so that we are not some latter day variant of the old South’s peculiar institution?

Are we going to pay so paltry an hourly wage that someone has to force an employer to do the right thing – to pay a decent wage?

The answer is yes – that’s exactly what we’ve had to do, and now the established “minimum” is itself too little.

This nation has an unflattering history of employers taking advantage of workers unfairly.

Children were forced to work in sweat shops under such harsh conditions that we had to outlaw this child abuse.

Workers were in harness for so many hours, they’d drop, and we had to establish legislative standards limiting how long an employer could force one to work.

There have also always been employers who paid too little for an hour of work.

We talk about compassion, but too many employers scrimp on what they pay a worker, take advantage of their desperation, increase their profits at the expense of a worker’s misery, by denying him a decent wage. 

When I was a senior in High School, I lived in the South Bronx and saw hard working men and women in my neighborhood fighting to make ends meet.  My parents were not so much better off.

I wrote an essay on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, “on the condition of workers.”  I was trying to understand what went wrong.

Pope Leo wrote in 1891 how the great majority of the poor “live undeservedly in miserable and wretched conditions.”  The Pope admonished employers that “workers are not to be treated as slaves.”  He decried how it was “shameful and inhuman … to use men as things for gain and to put no more value on them than what they are worth in muscle and energy.”

The Pope explained, “the principal” duty of an employer is “to give every worker what is justly due him” and “to establish a rule of pay in accord with justice…”

This wasn’t happening in 1891; nor when I wrote my essay in High School, and not now either.

Pope Leo said, “the rich and employers must remember that no laws, either human or divine, permit them for their own profit to oppress the needy and the wretched or to seek gain from another’s want.”

In Virginia, we attract business from other states by assuring out-of-state employers that they’ll be empowered to treat their work force more shabbily here, pay them less, increase their profits in the corrupt bargain, and be able to fire any dissident worker “at will.”

The minimum wage set by Congress has been holding at $7.25 an hour since 2009.

What $7.25 an hour means is, if you work a 40 hour work week for 52 weeks, your income, if paid entirely at the minimum wage, is $290 a week, and $15,080 for the year.  That’s a poverty level income.

There was a proposal this year in Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2015, and then to adjust the minimum after that with cost of living increases.

But the bill hasn’t moved in Congress.

In this Christmas season, we might compare these exploiting employers with Scrooge who made his clerk, Bob Cratchit, work long hours for low pay.

Scrooge learned, by the visit of ghosts, of spirits, what Pope Leo said, that “wealth does not give surcease of sorrow” and that “wealth is of no avail unto the happiness of eternal life but is rather a hindrance.”

In the Christmas Carol, Scrooge learned his lesson.

Will real life employers do as well?

I certainly hope so.

5 thoughts on “A Bare Minimum

  1. David Dickinson

    Not the topic of your post, but I have to point out how factually inaccurate the statement ” variant of the old South’s peculiar institution” is.

    All states had slavery.

    Please read http://slavenorth.com/ or http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/history/slavery-gw-oney.htm “Slavery was legal in all of the 13 Colonies and, at times, some areas of the North had higher rates of slaveholding than the South”

    Slavery wasn’t peculiar to the South, as it was in the entire country and, indeed, almost the entire world.

    And Rhode Island was one of the biggest transgressors:

    http://www.brown.edu/Facilities/John_Carter_Brown_Library/jcbexhibit/Pages/exhibSlavery.html

    “Slavery in North America, however, never achieved the scale that it did in the Caribbean or South America. Of the approximately twelve million Africans transported to America by the mid-nineteenth century, six hundred thousand (or 5 %) came to mainland North America, and about one hundred thousand (or 1%) were carried in Rhode Island ships.”

    Meaning a 20% of all slaves brought to the USA were brought by tiny Rhode Island.

  2. Epluribusunum

    I suspect that John’s use of the phrase “peculiar institution” was intended to evoke its common use by southerners, not to suggest that slavery was “peculiar” to the American South:

    The proper use of the expression is always as a possessive, e.g., “our peculiar institution” or “the South’s peculiar institution”. It was in popular use during the first half of the 19th century, especially in legislative bodies, as the word slavery was deemed “improper,” and was actually banned in certain areas…at the time this expression became popular, it was used in association with a vigorous defense of slavery as a good thing. One of the leaders in using the phrase, and in advancing the argument that slavery was a “positive good”, establishing the proper relation between the races, was John C. Calhoun, most notably in his Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions.

    Of course I wouldn’t vouch for the accuracy of a Wikipedia entry, but “our peculiar institution” is a phrase I have seen many times used in exactly this manner.

  3. David Dickinson

    But this is a reoccurring theme for John. He think the Confederate statue on the courthouse should be taken down in part because it is a reminder of slavery. Apparently, John Is not cognizant of the fact that the North is as much a slave culprit as the South.

    http://www.pbs.org/pov/tracesofthetrade/background.php

    Northern Involvement in the Slave Trade

    A central fact obscured by post-Civil War mythologies is that the northern U.S. states were deeply implicated in slavery and the slave trade right up to the war.

    The slave trade in particular was dominated by the northern maritime industry. Rhode Island alone was responsible for half of all U.S. slave voyages. The DeWolfs may have been the biggest slavers in U.S. history, but there were many others involved. For example, some members of the Brown family of Providence were prominent in the slave trade; the Brown family gave substantial gifts to Rhode Island College, which was later renamed Brown University.

    Although local townspeople thought of the DeWolfs and other prominent families primarily as general merchants, distillers and traders who supported ship-building, warehousing, insurance businesses, and other trades and businesses, it was common knowledge that one source of this business was the cheap labor and huge profits reaped from trafficking in human beings.

    The North imported slaves, as well as transporting and selling them in the South and abroad. Although the majority of enslaved Africans arrived in southern ports — Charleston, South Carolina, was the largest market for slave traders, including the DeWolfs — most large colonial ports served as points of entry, and Africans were sold in northern ports that included Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Newport, Rhode Island.

    The southern coastal states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland were home to the vast majority of enslaved persons. But there were slaves in each of the 13 original colonies, and slavery was legal in the North for more than 200 years. Even though the northern states gradually began abolishing slavery by law starting in the 1780s, many of them did not take action against those who broke the laws until well into the 19th century; in addition, their laws generally provided only for gradual abolition, allowing slave owners to keep their existing slaves and often their children. As a result, New Jersey, for example, still had thousands of persons legally enslaved in the 1830s, and did not finally abolish slavery by law until 1846. As late as the outbreak of the Civil War, in fact, there were northern slaves listed on the federal census.

    In the South, men, women and children were often forced to work on large plantations, which could employ the labor of hundreds or even thousands of enslaved Africans. In the North, farms were smaller, and those farmers who owned slaves generally had only a small number. And it was fairly common during slavery in the North to find one or two slaves in the households of farmers, merchants, ministers and others.

  4. Epluribusunum

    I’m not sure what your point is in bringing this up. To try to keep things somewhat on topic, it’s worth noting that after slavery as the outright ownership of human beings was abolished, an arguably even worse form of human bondage was established by means of vagrancy laws. I say “arguably worse” because under this system the “employer” didn’t even have the burden of maintaining his human property, so that these slaves by another name were truly expendable. In the industrializing north of the same period, immigrants were treated much the same – as expendable widgets, good only for the labor that could be extracted from them.

    The “huge profits reaped from trafficking in human beings” is exactly the topic here, don’t you think?

  5. David Dickinson

    The point being slavery was a national tragedy from which both the North and South benefited. Liberals like to pigeonhole it as a southern thing, but it most certainly was not.

    Bringing back around….

    The laws of supply and demand are irrefutable. The greater the supply of something, the cheaper it is. On the topic of this post, we have low wages. And, yet, we have liberals who also want lax immigration laws. Do you not see the correlation between the two? If you want to increase wages for those at the low end, then slow or stop the flow of immigrants. As the amount of labor decreases, prices (i.e. wages) will rise. It ain’t rocket science.

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