The annual observance of Labor Day invites us to focus
on the great dignity of human labor. We do this within
the context of the Church's social teaching.
The Gospel message declares that "the laborer
is worthy of his hire" (Lk 10:7). Although this
statement directly refers to apostles, these words enunciate
a principle that has much broader implications for all
laborers. The Scripture does not offer a fully developed
teaching on the remuneration of the laborer. The parable
of the laborers in the vineyard focuses not so much
on this life but the eternal remuneration for those
called at different stages of life. The parable of the
unfaithful steward is directed to the faithful disciple
and urges greater wisdom, initiative and prudence. The
parable of the talents teaches each to contribute according
to what has been received.
Early Church writing, reflecting on the Scriptures,
upheld the dignity of the human person, the family and
work in an agrarian culture. During the Middle Ages,
feudal social structure provided the context for economic
life. Those in charge were enjoined to treat those working
for them with respect; laborers were expected to do
an honest day's work.
The development of city life led eventually to the
Industrial Revolution. This provided the impetus for
the development of a more organized social teaching
in the Church. Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI, John XXIII,
Paul VI and John Paul II have contributed to a growing
body of social teaching that places a priority of labor
over capital. Now the digital revolution introduces
a new set of challenges as computerized services threaten
to replace personal human service.
The Second Vatican Council taught that "remuneration
for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide
a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on
the material, social, cultural and spiritual level,
taking into account the role and the productivity of
each, the state of the business and the common good"
("Church in the Modern World," 67). The "Catechism
of the Catholic Church" teaches: "a just wage
is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold
it can be a grave injustice." (CCC, 2434)
The issue of a living wage for workers is a pressing
issue. A parent responsible for the support of a family,
working 40 hours a week at the current minimum wage
($5.15), earns $10,712 per year. This is nearly $5,000
below the poverty line for a family of three. In the
last seven years this salary has lost almost 20 percent
of its buying power. For instance, the $5.15 hourly
wage of 1997, adjusted for inflation, is worth $4.23
today. In recent years advocates have proposed raising
the minimum wage to $6.15.
The business community has expressed serious concerns.
Would the raising of the minimum wage increase unemployment
among the working poor because jobs might be eliminated?
Would a higher wage discourage firms from locating here?
Independent studies tend to minimize the costs involved.
The average cost per firm would be less than one percent
of the annual expenses and most of this cost would be
absorbed by consumers. It is true that some smaller
firms would incur higher costs and a few might fail.
But all minimum wage earners would realize an 11.8 percent
increase in gross income. Retail stores alone could
realize a projected three percent increase in sales.
The government would experience fewer costs for food
stamps and other programs benefiting the poorest of
In 2002, a proposal to raise the minimum wage $1 per
hour was placed before the New Orleans voters and was
passed overwhelmingly. The Louisiana State Supreme Court
ruled, however, that the proposed New Orleans ordinance
could not supplant the rate established by the State
of Louisiana. Unfortunately, statewide legislation has
not passed after several attempts including this past
The Church's social teaching requires us, as employees,
as voters, as parents, as sisters and brothers in Christ,
to give serious attention to this critical issue. While
no one particular proposal can lay sole claim to translating
the Gospel teaching into practice, the proposal to raise
the minimum wage is an important way to make concrete
the Church's teaching that workers should be able to
realize a family living wage. I am, therefore, asking
our schools, agencies and parishes to ensure that they
are paying full-time employees at least a dollar above
the minimum wage.
God grant us the wisdom and courage to find the best
way to promote the authentic dignity of the human laborer.