Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Right to a Just Wage

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WORKERS and their employers is one that is based or ought to be based upon convention--a free and uncoerced agreement between employer and employee. But the relationship is not only conventional, it is also one that has an underlying nature, and so has a natural law and justice associated with it which the convention ought to reflect and certainly not contradict. The convention is based upon the natural relation of employer and employee, is meant to implement it. And just like a conventional law that is unjust is no law at all (lex iniusta non est lex) so is an agreement between worker and employer no agreement at all if it is unjust (contractus iniustus non est contractus).

At its most simple, that employment relationship is between two human persons, and justice is what ought to govern that relationship. Modernly, more often than not, however, the employer is an impersonal institution, an organization, a corporation, a fictional person. Also, the possibility always lurks of a disparity in bargaining power between a monied employer and an unmonied employee. These can affect that relationship adversely, affect the parties' relative bargaining powers, and lead to injustice.

Unfortunately, between bureaucracy and power disparity the human element in the relationship is often lost and abuse and injustice becomes possible. Most often, it is the worker who is at a disadvantage, and it is often a "sad fact" that workers are "underpaid and without protection or adequate representation." Conditions of workers, especially in developing countries, are often so inhumane that they are an offend the dignity and health of workers. to For this reason, the Church has focused on the rights of the worker as against the employer, though the worker certainly has reciprocal rights owed to his employer. The rights are not all one-way.

In order to protect the relationship of justice that ought to exist between the employed and the employer, the Church has been quite insistent on worker's rights, and has been so since she first addressed the social question. "The rights of workers, like all other rights, are based on the nature of the human person and on his transcendent dignity." (Compendium, No. 301) This is to say that the rights of workers as the Church understands them are part and parcel of the natural moral law. These rights are based upon the nature of the employment relationship and the fact that such relationship is one that involves a person.

Though the rights of the worker are based upon the natural law and so immutable, their application in contingent circumstances might vary. (We are dealing largely with determinations of principles, here, not first principles.) For example, how these rights operate in the concrete would be different if we are looking at the employment relationship between one tribesman and another in the village of Mpintimpi in Ghana or the employment between a laborer and his employer in the heart of Milan, Chicago, Birmingham, or Hamburg. They are also historically conditioned. What was appropriate in medieval Paris is not necessarily appropriate in contemporary Paris.

There certain rights of workers that the Church in her social doctrine has identified, and we may aggregate them into what might be called a worker's Bill of Rights. It should be understood, however, that these rights as enumerated in the Compendium presuppose a very advanced economy, and so not all of them may apply or they may not apply in the same way in simpler employment conditions. Some of these rights are more quantitative, while others are more qualitative. Finally, not all of them are the responsibility of the employer, as some are the responsibility of the society at large, or intermediate social or charitable institutions, or of the local, regional, or national governments. Some of these could even be the individual's responsibility to implement (e.g, purchasing insurance and saving money to provide for retirement).
  • The right to a just (or living) wage
  • The right to rest
  • The right to safe and morally acceptable working environments and manufacturing processes
  • The right to have one's conscience and personal dignity respected
  • The right to appropriate subsidies necessary for the subsistence of unemployed workers and their families
  • The right to pension and to insurance for old age, sickness, and work-related accidents
  • The right to social security in connection with maternity
  • The right to assembly and to form associations such as unions
(Compendium, No. 301)

One of the central features of the relationship between employer and employee is remuneration. Remuneration is the entire package of recompense to the worker in exchange for his labor to the business enterprise. There must be justice between worker and employer, and "remuneration is the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships." When that remuneration is just,that is, when it conforms to natural justice, the Church refers to it as a "just wage." Sometimes it is referred to as a "living wage."

There is a rich Biblical tradition which underlies the Church's insistence that it is a "grave injustice" to "refuse to pay a just wage" or to refuse to give a just wage "in due time and in due proportion to the work done." (Compendium, No. 302) The insistence is found both in the Old and New Testaments. "You shall not defraud or rob your neighbor. You shall not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer." (Lev. 19:13) "Behold," says the Apostle James in his epistle echoing the Law and the Prophets, "the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts." (James 5:4) It is a deeply traditionalist and conservative spirit behind the Church's insistence that the employer ought to pay a just wage. We are dealing with a moral injunction which trumps economic motive or justifications.

The worker's labor is what allows him to "gain access to the goods of the earth." It is what allows him "the means to cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of his dependents." Failure to pay him a just wage shuts him out of this endeavor. It is for this reason that mere agreement between laborer and employer is not an assurance of a "just wage."

Convention is not sufficient if the underlying justice is violated. Unquestionably, free agreement (convention) is an important element of assessing a "just wage." A wage that is forced upon two parties acting in good faith is not just. But agreement, while a necessary condition for a just wage, is not a sufficient condition for a just wage. A wage "must not be below the level of subsistence," and if it is, "natural justice precedes and is above the freedom of the contract." (Compendium, No. 302) (quoting Leo XIII, Rerum novarum).* An unjust wage implies that there has been an unjust distribution of income. Either the employer (through greater profit) or society at large (through cheap goods) has obtained income unjustly.

The economic well-being is not measured exclusively by the quantity of goods it produces but also by taking into account the manner in which they are produced and the level of equity in the distribution of income, which should allow everyone access to what is necessary for their personal development and perfection. An equitable distribution of income is to be sought on the basis of criteria non merely of commutative justice but also of social justice that is, considering, beyond the objective value of the work rendered, the human dignity of the subject who perform it. Authentic economic well-being is pursued also by means of suitable social policies for the redistribution of income which, taking general conditions into account, look at merit as well as the need of each citizen.

(Compendium, No. 303)

There will always be disputes between employer and employees that need resolution. It is a consummation, devoutly to be wished, that those disputes be resolved amicably, fairly, without resort to violence. There are times, however, were resolution through preferred means does not work. In those times, "'when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit,'" and "when every other method for the resolution of disputes has been ineffectual," the Church recognizes the moral legitimacy of striking. (Compendium, No. 304**) Striking is therefore a "kind of ultimatum," and it must remain peaceful.

Striking is defined as "the collective and concerted refusal on the part of workers to continue rendering their services, for the purpose of obtaining by means of such pressure exerted on their employers, the State, or on public opinion either better working conditions or an improvement in their social status." Striking must not be used, however, to coerce the employer into an unjust bargain. It must not be used as a tool to achieve objectives "not directly linked to working conditions or that are contrary to the common good." Therefore, strikes that expose the public to danger or serious inconvenience (e.g., by policemen, air-traffic controllers) may not be legitimate. Likewise, using strikes as a form of "blackmail" to exact unjust recompense are against the common good.

Striking is therefore a last-means by which the workers obtain by pressure something owed to them by justice. But the morality of striking does not end there. Striking itself becomes "morally unacceptable when accompanied by violence" or if carried out unjustly. It would be morally unacceptable, for example if the strike involved violence against employer representatives, if it involves destruction to property, if it threatens the very viability of the employer, if it seriously inconveniences the public, or when unwilling workers are forced to participate in the strike through threats of violence or other coercive techniques.

*Though it might be argued that a laborer is better with some wage than none at all, it seems that that avoids the greater question. First, paying workers non-subsistence wages is hardy a long-term solution and is inhumane since by definition it means that the laborer is condemned to a life of misery. Second, it would suggest that the enterprise has not fairly assessed the value of the labor to the enterprise, or if it has, it means the enterprise is not economically warranted. If the enterprise cannot afford to pay an above-subsistence wage and make a profit, it would appear that the enterprise is either inefficiently run or is producing a product the demand of which does not justify the continuation of the enterprise. It is unjust to expect the worker to absorb this managerial or economic inefficiency through wages that are non-subsistence.
**The Compendium cites to Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 68; John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 20; and the Catechism of the Catholic Church § 2430.

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