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Leo on Labor Justice

February 17, 2010

"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."


This concept from Rerum Novarum, blindingly obvious but almost wholly obscured by a century and a half of capitalist ideology, expresses perfectly what I spent more than a year struggling to express, recognizing that something like this must be true, but so indoctrinated that it was impossible to see it clearly.  Here's the full context for that statement in the encyclical--great stuff:
"43. We now approach a subject of great importance, and one in respect of which, if extremes are to be avoided, right notions are absolutely necessary. Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent, and therefore the employer, when he pays what was agreed upon, has done his part and seemingly is not called upon to do anything beyond. The only way, it is said, in which injustice might occur would be if the master refused to pay the whole of the wages, or if the workman should not complete the work undertaken; in such cases the public authority should intervene, to see that each obtains his due, but not under any other circumstances.
44. To this kind of argument a fair-minded man will not easily or entirely assent; it is not complete, for there are important considerations which it leaves out of account altogether. To labor is to exert oneself for the sake of procuring what is necessary for the various purposes of life, and chief of all for self preservation. "In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread." Hence, a man's labor necessarily bears two notes or characters. First of all, it is personal, inasmuch as the force which acts is bound up with the personality and is the exclusive property of him who acts, and, further, was given to him for his advantage. Secondly, man's labor is necessary; for without the result of labor a man cannot live, and self-preservation is a law of nature, which it is wrong to disobey. Now, were we to consider labor merely in so far as it is personal, doubtless it would be within the workman's right to accept any rate of wages whatsoever; for in the same way as he is free to work or not, so is he free to accept a small wage or even none at all. But our conclusion must be very different if, together with the personal element in a man's work, we consider the fact that work is also necessary for him to live: these two aspects of his work are separable in thought, but not in reality. The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.
45. 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."

2 comments:

Brad:

" 45. 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."


My question to you: if it is true that an employer who pays less than a living wage is causing injustice, who enforces this injustice?

How is the remedy for the injustice enforced?

What is a living wage?

Is that living wage different for a single man than a man with 12 children?

If it is different, then will it be injustice for the man with 12 children to accept slightly less than his "just" amount so that he can keep at least that much?

I don't necessarily disagree with the quote and do think that it is informative as a philosophical position. My question is, how do you make this rubber meet the road?

Cheers,

JRM

February 28, 2010 at 8:12 AM  

Answer to your questions:
1 and 2) Very good questions. One hates to say "the state" given that the massive corrupt states that we now have hardly seem fit agents to entrust such a serious responsibility to....However, the state is what Leo had in mind, and would historically have played a major role in this. Ideally, though, both state and Church should, rather than directly enforcing this, attempt to help the creation and sustaining of things like labor unions, guilds, etc., that will regulate this issue for themselves.

3) Obviously that will depend on different societies and circumstances...I think some later Catholic Social Teaching tries to get more specific on this subject, but I'm no expert on that. I would offer the following as a general definition--"A wage that enables a man to feed a family consisting of a wife and up to 4-6 children healthily and clothe and shelter them decently, as well as providing a basic education for them." I say up to 4-6 children because, if a family was to have more than this, presumably the father would by that time be further along in his career, and would be able to command a higher wage. If he can't, perhaps he shouldn't have more children.

4 and 5) Hmm...I don't think a business is obligated to keep giving a man a raise simply because he keeps having more children...I'm not of the belief that you should treat your wife like a child-factory, and you have no say over how many children she produces. So, I don't think you can say, "Look, I have twelve kids, so pay up!" But, a business, inasmuch as it has the means to do so, should try to take into account the needs of its employees in setting their wages. In principle, that suggests that it is legitimate for a business to pay single employees a somewhat lower wage than employees with families.

It's certainly an issue I'm interested in reading up on more, to see how the popes have tried to address such rubber-meets-the-road questions.

February 28, 2010 at 4:50 PM  

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