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.