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  • Promoting a Just Wage Economy
  • Dan Graff (bio)

Catholic social teaching (CST) is the church's best-kept secret." That is a common complaint among progressives, Catholic or otherwise, who lament the eclipse of the church's antipoverty, pro-labor, and community development emphases by a narrowly defined politics-of-life agenda over the past four decades. It is also something I hear regularly at the University of Notre Dame, where I teach US labor history, introducing students each semester to CST's critique of unbridled capitalism, support for the dignity of work and those who perform it, and endorsement of the rights of workers to participate fully in their economic lives. My colleagues and I at Notre Dame's Center for Social Concerns (CSC), the heart of community-based engagement at this Catholic university in South Bend, Indiana, are doing our best to make sure CST is a secret no more.

I direct the CSC's Higgins Labor Program, an interdisciplinary unit of diverse faculty, students, and staff exploring the past, present, and future of work and workers through the lens of CST. Named for noted twentieth-century labor priest and economist George Higgins, who toiled tirelessly for the cause of workers' rights and the union idea, the Higgins Labor Program undertakes educational, advocacy, and research initiatives addressing urgent questions of economic inequality, oppression, and organization. By foregrounding CST's foundational pro-labor commitments, we aim to connect the church's enduring social justice principles to current crises in ways that deepen intellectual engagement across disciplines, bring together disparate campus and community constituencies, and promote the common good.

A prime example of our approach is the Just Wage Working Group (JWWG). Taking CST as inspiration—in particular, Pope John Paul II's claim that "a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system"—the JWWG brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars and students drawn from the humanities, social sciences, business, and law in order to probe the foundational question: what makes any given wage just or unjust?1

Deploying CST as a lens—alongside and in conversation with historical, sociological, legal, economic, and other normative approaches—has been particularly useful in helping the JWWG forge new ways of looking at wages: in particular, [End Page 9] income inequality. For example, CST's insistence on humans as inherently relational and social beings facilitates a framework foregrounding interconnectedness, inviting consideration of not only minimums (wage floors and poverty thresholds) but also maximums (wage ceilings and excessiveness), as well as the social wage so critical to household security and success (transportation, child care, family leave, public parks, etc.). Ultimately, we have found, CST principles distinguish our Just Wage Framework from other "living wage" models. We place our emphasis less on dollar figures, especially minimums, and more on a holistic view of compensation combining many components, both quantitative and qualitative. A just wage, in other words, is more robust and relational than other wage conceptualizations.

As I write this in January 2019, the JWWG is finalizing a Just Wage Framework identifying core criteria and making plans to go live with an online Just Wage Tool before the end of the year. Our hope is that it will be useful to—and widely used by—practitioner and policy maker alike. We shall see, but the initial feedback, based on consultations with a diverse group of stakeholders—from federal mediators to management attorneys to union activists and workplace advocates—has been promising, suggesting that a CST-inspired vocabulary centered on justice, participation, and the common good might promote productive discernment and dialogue leading to public and private-sector policies rooted in widely shared values and conducive to more widely shared wealth.

We live in particularly polarizing times, when politics and economics get pitched by partisans as zero-sum endeavors with winners and losers separated by borders both geographic and cultural. But our Just Wage approach takes a different tack, foregrounding the multiple interconnections linking all of us. And that is the same for all of our efforts at the Higgins Labor Program. Rooted in the principles of Catholic Social Tradition—solidarity with the marginalized, the preferential...


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