On Just Wages, Work, and CST (Part I)

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This is the first part of a post of a (hopefully) accurate depiction of Catholic social teaching and the issue of just wages.  Here we cover the nature of the problem, give a brief description of Catholic teaching on work and private property, and the duties of the employer and employee.  Part II will come on Monday.

The Problem

The question of a just wage and the applications to American society today is an issue which has greatly divided Catholics, especially along party lines. The disparity of classes in the United States has been construed, and improperly so, as a bitter struggle between rich and poor, the former ever seeking to keep the latter in their place. While undeniably greed factors into the struggle, it is by no means the sole domain of either class, or rather, the affluent run the risk, in the insatiable pursuit of worldly goods, to succumb to greed, while the impoverished, in seeing the excesses of the wealthy, stand at risk to covet.

The issue of a just wage then finds context in this perceived struggle as a means to narrow the gap between rich and poor by, hypothetically, lifting the unfortunate out of their penury into a lifestyle that is not immediately endangered by accident, injury, or any other unforeseen circumstances. The end of raising the poor out of squalor has always been dear to the Catholic Church, taking cue from Christ Himself who said “Whatever you did for one these least brothers of mine, you did for me (Mt 24:40).” And we are always reminded that our work in elevating the poor will never cease, for we are told, “The poor you will always have with you (Mt 26:11).”

But is the issue of a just wage specifically for the elevation of the poor out of penury? Certainly it is a vital notion in regards to justice, but how so?

The disparity along party lines in the treatment of a just wage is reflected in two slogans. The first, reflecting the viewpoint on the left is “The rich get richer; the poor get poorer”. While this is not necessarily a belief that the rich can only acquire wealth at the expense of the poor, it is still a denunciation of the rich and finds justification in the words “To whom much is given, much is expected (Lk 12:48).” Even if the acquisition of property and world goods is not viewed as a zero-sum game (though I would assert that, in fact, many do see it as so), the plight of the poor must certainly reflect on the failure of the rich to uphold their duty of charitable stewardship.

The second, reflecting the viewpoint of the right, is “A rising tide lifts all ships”, a belief—justified to an extent—that the prosperity of the wealthy, even if they are only a tiny portion of the population, translates to prosperity, to a lesser degree, for all. The duty of the rich, then, is to accumulate more so as to be able to offer more, overall, in terms of jobs for the unemployed or charitable acts on a scale that could not be accomplished without vast resources.

These two views, almost completely contradictory in nature, lend to radically diverging views of how to handle just wage. Each view bears a kernel of truth, but turns a blind eye to aspects of justice, human dignity, and God’s intentions for man. The first finds fault with the just acquisition of private property; the second that market forces are inherently incapable of satisfying all human needs.

Private Property and Work

To find an appropriate path in the handling of a just wage, it is therefore necessary to recount, in brief, two factors that apply directly to the discernment of proper remuneration: private property, and the necessity of work.

While the earth was given into human hands for the use of mankind at large, in the sense that the earth belongs in whole and is at the disposal of all men, we have explicitly from the Ten Commandments, and backed by Popes Leo XIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II, as well as doctors such as St. Thomas Aquinas, that each man has a right to private property. The right to such property comes explicitly from man’s willingness to toil and just compensation for his work. A man who labors to harvest fruit from wild foliage may have no right to claim ownership of the plants from which he picked, but he is entitled to the fruit he has harvested by right of his willingness to expend the effort to harvest. A man who has tilled a plot of land, heretofore barren and unowned, has a just claim to his land by virtue of the effort he has invested in the land. Matters weigh differently when a man hires out his labor to toil in a field not his own. His work by nature grants him a claim to the land, but that claim can be negotiated away for a fair wage in return for his work.

If private property then is the just result of work, what then is man’s relation to work? We know from the story of the fall that man is obliged to toil to produce a living from the harsh, unforgiving world. From St. Paul we have the admonition, “If anyone will not work, let him not eat (2 Th 3:10).” Work is necessary for man for the procurement of those items essential for existence. Moreover, work is a natural expression of man, a distinguishing characteristic that separates man from animal.

While work is necessary for man to fulfill his obligations to provide for himself and his family, it also comes with a caution. Man’s work on earth is neverending. Until the day he dies, a man continually has needs which he must satisfying, some as simple as food and shelter, others more complex. In addition, while man fulfills his obligations by working in this world, he neither is of this world, nor is his final destination in this world. This by no means excuses man from work, nor does it render his work futile or in vain. But it is a sharp reminder that it matters little how much wealth one accrues in this life; in the end, rich or poor, the outcome is the same.

Associated with work is the principle of remuneration. Ideally, a man receives in return for his toil compensation proportional to the effort he has expended. It is justice that if a man expends more hours in labor, he receives further compensation. It is justice that a man should receive more in compensation for a labor that he can uniquely perform with his particular talents than for a labor many others could do.

The problem in dealing with work and wages is that too often the end result of work—the procurement of a living through one’s own effort—is masked behind the material component. The purpose of work is not viewed, then, as a means to live, but a means of acquiring property for property’s sake. On the left, the acquisition of property becomes, not a means to work towards, but a fundamental right that can never be denied, even in the absence of work. On the right, the acquisition of property becomes, not a mean of providing a living, but a means of acquiring even more property, to the extent that it ignores the very real needs of those who, through no fault of their own, are incapable of providing for themselves.

The Duties of the Employer

The duty of man in regards to work is first and foremost to labor honestly to provide for himself and his family. The duty of an employer, then, is still to make a living for himself. But, when he becomes so successful that he can expand his business, he perhaps has an obligation to do so. While the employer has every right to the property he has earned, he—almost in paradoxical fashion—still has the duty to make that property beneficial to his fellow man. This should be nothing surprising, in that we expect that a man provide a service to others through his efforts, and in acquisition, share of the abundance. This does not fall to the collectivism of socialism, but instead adheres to justice in respects to both private property and charity.

If a man, through his efforts, manages to acquire an additional parcel of land, he has an obligation to till that land and make it abundant. Letting it lie fallow is a grave injustice to those willing and capable of laboring on that land.

This example reflects the slogans mentioned earlier. If the man acquires the land, he grows in wealth by virtue of owning the land. If he chooses to leave the land fallow and forbids any to work the fields for unjust reasons, then this is indeed a case of the rich becoming richer expressly at the expense of the poor. However, if he chooses then to hire hands to work the fields and produce an even greater harvest than he previously had, then his wealth translates to wealth for others, even if a lesser amount than his.

When the employer hires hands to work for him, he has an obligation to justly compensate his employees for their work. This goes without saying. But an employer is capable of offering different types of employment, and it is necessary to distinguish between them.

Full time employment is work offered to an employee that requires an employee’s full devotion of time and talent. Since it is expected that an employee would focus his efforts on this work, the employer has an obligation to make compensation sufficient so that an employee is capable of doing so.

Part time employment is work offered to an employee that requires a small investment of an employee’s time and talent, leaving the employee free to pursue other means of labor in the meantime. An employer has an obligation to offer just compensation to his employee, but this does not have be compensation sufficient for the employee to live by.

Charity employment is work offered to an employee that requires very little from the employee in terms of time and talent, but offers compensation far greater than the work is truly worth.

An employer has duty to provide what employment he can without endangering his ability to provide for himself and his family. If he needs only a few hours of additional help a day, and cannot afford to provide a laborer with full time employment, he is under no obligation to offer full time employment. If he is capable of offering full time employment, then he probably should.

The question of the prudence of offering full time employment is contingent upon external factors as well as internal. Consider, for example, a man who can either choose to hire a few laborers full time to work his fields the entire day, or choose to hire many part time laborers to work his fields in shifts during the day. It may be unjust to take the latter option if the employer does so because it will cut costs and provide him with further profit, but it may be just if the available laborers are only interested in part time contracts.

An employer, as an employer, is under no obligation to offer charity employment. His duty to offer work is not solely for the employee to earn a living. In conjunction with that, though not contrary to, is the employer’s obligation to provide a service for his fellow men. An employer might have the ability to hire men to move rocks back and forth across his fields all day, which would provide employment but would fail to provide a useful service to others. Better would be to hire men to till his fields and produce an abundant harvest, for then he not only provides employment, but food for the market.

An employer, as a human being, however, has an obligation to charity. If he has the ability to offer charity employment without endangering his livelihood or the livelihood of his employees, then he should do so.

The Duties of the Employee

The employee also has a duty to work to provide a living for himself and his family, to acquire just compensation from his efforts and prudent application of his time and talents. From this, his obligation is not only to honor his contract with his employer, but to also acquire skills and develop his talents to make his labor more profitable, and to then seek employment that will allow him to provide a living.

An employee faces a difficult situation, in that he is obligated to work, but an employer is not obligated to hire him specifically. An employer therefore needs to prove himself capable of meeting an employer’s criteria. For simpler jobs, an employee might need only work to prove himself diligent and reliable. For more demanding jobs, an employee might need training and credentials. Thus it is incumbent on an employee to acquire skills, credentials, and history.

However, an employee might not have the opportunity to acquire skills, or an abundance of laborers makes it impossible to build a record. This is one of the largest, most grave, concerns of justice, and no easy solutions presents itself. Suffice to say, an employee has an obligation to keep seeking employment, but his duties to provide a living, temporarily at least, pass on to the church, the community, or the state.

(to be continued…)

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  1. There are a lot of points in this post that are worthy of comment and/or critique. My first impulse would be to write half a dozen or so long comments each addressing a different point, but if I did that each individual point would likely get lost in the volume. So let me, for now at least, confine myself to one particular point. You say:

    Associated with work is the principle of remuneration. Ideally, a man receives in return for his toil compensation proportional to the effort he has expended. It is justice that if a man expends more hours in labor, he receives further compensation.

    I sense the ghost of the labor theory of value lurking behind these remarks, and I want to send that specter back to the foul perdition from wince it came. It’s not true that compensation ought to be proportionate to the amount of labor that a man expends in performing a given task, or to the amount of time he labors. If A can do a particular job twice as fast as B, then it is perfectly fair for an employer to pay A more than B for the same amount of time worked. What matters is not how hard a person works or for how long; rather, it is the value he produces that will determine his compensation. (It is true that, for practical reasons, a lot of compensation is determined based on time worked, whether in hours, or days, or weeks, or whatever; but there is no reason in principle why it has to be this way, and indeed it often isn’t, as anyone who has ever worked on commission can tell you).

  2. blackadderiv,

    Well, I hope the specter is duly banished. I wanted to keep concepts as simple as I could, as this was a long, long post (noted by how I decided to divide it into two posts). The part you have quoted here was merely the comparison of a man with himself, not with any other men. I wasn’t even necessarily thinking so much as a man working for wages in some company, even, but down even to the most basic. If you think of ancient, prehistoric man, out hunting and gathering, the idea would be this: if you spend more hours a day picking berries, chances are (there’s no guarantee, of course), that you’ll end up with more berries.

    You are exactly correct to point out that a man deserves compensation for quality as well as quantity of work. I never meant anything to imply that I denied that. On the other hand, you can’t deny quantity of work, either, at least within context. Quality, quantity, and rarity of work (i.e. special skills that only a few have) are all factors that have to be consider together when working with the whole picture. You’re exactly right about that.

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