Monday, August 20, 2007

Is something better than nothing?

I like Greencastle's latest installment on "the living wage".

I didn't see any treatment of the "something is better than nothing" argument in the Catechism; the Church is emphatic about the need to pay workers a living wage. The Catechism does list several factors that employers must take into account when setting wages, and one of those is the "state of the business" (CCC 2434).

But one cannot use the "state of the business" clause to justify paying inadequate wages under "business as usual" conditions. When the farm recovers from this temporary calamity, or the various workers find some other more profitable line of work, it is understood that the return to normalcy includes all workers earning a living wage.

This is a radical way of thinking for corporate America (and corporate elsewhere), where the market price is considered the acceptable wage under all conditions. There are many firms today which are reporting profits to shareholders, and paying sizable salaries to management, but which are not paying all workers a living wage.

I, as many of us have, have seen this from different perspectives at times. The first company I worked for out of college was start-up. About 4 months into employment, management asked us all to take a 25% pay deferrment so they could stay in business. The promise was to pay back with interest and some common stock (which never had value as it turned out.) They did pay us back-with the interest about a year or so later.

Another company I worked for went through a series of layoffs during the economic downturn several years ago. Yet even when things were back on track and the company was making profits again, the pressure to make more and more profits from the shareholders, and the means to pay some high executive salaries, resulted in even more layoffs-I being one of those casualties. Of course this also results in the remaining employees being pressured to work harder and longer for the same pay.

Now I own and operate my own business. Of course I don't have any employees per se, but I do have authors and artists with whom I negotiate royalties. I do try to take Church teaching on living wage into account when I negotiate royalties. I know there are some publishing companies which pay a mere 7-8% royalty rate to their authors-and the industry standard is something like 10-12%. Unless you are a Tom Clancy or Danielle Steele (or JD Rowling) you must always scramble for the next dollar. This can't be fair. And yet, many would say (and I have had this complaint more than once myself about our books) that books are too expensive as they are. Sure, a few people are making millions off best-sellers, but most small publishers (especially in the Catholic market) and authors are just barely scraping by and pricing their work below living wage so they can make at least something. Or they view their work more as an apostolate and thus provide their books at great sacrifice-because the market of Catholic readers won't pay a decent price for a book.

Catholic retailers have similar problems. Here and here, The folks at Aquinas & More Catholic Goods discuss this from the retail perspective in our industry.

I guess I have gotten off course with where we started, but that's okay. It's my blog.

Oremus pro invicem!


Jennifer said...

Royalties are tricky, too, since they don't correspond to hours of labor. I think the nature of the system is such that there will always be some doubt about whether all parties received a just share of the portion of the profits.

Quite different from the context of manufactured goods, and wages paid by the hour or by the piece.

(I have, by the way, worked for employers who, to my knowledge, paid a just wage. Its not a universal problem and I'm not trying to paint it as one.)

JCurley said...

You are correct on royalites, they don't correlate the same way. And yes, I too have worked for several companies who paid a just wage-at least to me-I don't know how everyone else on the totum pole was doing.