The expression ‘living wage’, and the concept that underlies it, goes back at least as far as Rerum Novarum, the encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on May 5, 1891. The moral imperative that it expresses, so important to progressive social Catholicism in the first half of the twentieth century, made its way after the Second World War into the human rights documents issued under the auspices of the United Nations. Article 23, Paragraph 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1948 reads, “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration, insuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights calls in Article 7 for workers’ entitlement to “fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value” and “a decent living for themselves and their families.”
Unfortunately, while the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were among the strongest proponents of such economic rights, and while President Jimmy Carter signed the 1966 Covenant, the US Senate has never ratified it. This is but one of many instances in which the US government stands outside the international consensus on what constitutes human rights. Of course, the ‘Reagan Revolution’ has made matters even worse. The only economic (as opposed to political and civic) rights which the US government now promotes around the world are the rights pertaining to private property; the only collective (as opposed to individual) rights it seems to recognize are those of corporations, collectivities which claim such rights under the fiction of being individual ‘legal persons’. According to the logic, this corporate property right is the only legitimate collective economic right because it is consistent with the market rules that protect corporate interests. Never mind the circularity of the argument. What is important is that this conception of economic rights does nothing to protect the economic rights or well-being of those who do the grunt work for the corporations. Thus corporate rights as they are now asserted are at war with the economic rights of workers, which rights have since the end of World War II been part of the international consensus on human rights.
Worse yet, it is not just corporations who devalue their workers. The reason that there is a living wage movement in the United States is because both the private and the public sector violate the human rights of their workers by paying them wages below the poverty line. It is inconceivable, in this nation of unprecedented wealth, that our taxpayer dollars can be used by governmental entities to pay their own employees wages insufficient to sustain themselves and their families.
This is what stimulated the creation of the Champaign County Living Wage Association, one of many that have grown up in the United States to push for policies whereby governmental or public tax-supported units pay their workers a living wage and oblige private businesses that receive government benefits or contracts to do the same.
The Living Wage Association defines a living wage as what a family of four would need to remain right at what the federal government determines to be the poverty level plus health care benefits, considered a “necessary…means of social protection” in the words of the 1948 UN Declaration .
The poverty level calculated by the government changes from year to year. For a family of four, it is now $8.49 per hour for a 40-hour work week. This is generally conceded to be very low, especially given the high cost of housing. Locally, the problem of government employees earning wages below the poverty line is particularly serious at the county level. Another problem is that some of our governmental units contract out work to private employers who pay low wages and do not offer health benefits. The living wage movement also advocates an end to the contracting-out technique as a means to avoid paying a decent and rightful wage for public services.
The Champaign County Living Wage Association, a coalition of over forty secular and religious community organizations, has been preparing the groundwork for about four years now. It has collected data, held forums, spoken to business people, and sent speakers out to educate the community and solicit feedback. That educational campaign has been highly successful, as indicated by the number of organizations who have joined the effort. Moreover, two local public bodies, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and the Champaign County Housing Authority, have recently enacted living wage policies. The Living Wage Association is now prepared to carry this human rights issue to the county board and to the Champaign and Urbana city councils .
As we celebrate another Labor Day, it is appropriate to reflect on the fact that human rights are not just abstractions discussed in the UN and written into international documents. They are a set of social practices which require political struggle and action on the part of real people to become reality. The Champaign County Living Wage Association has launched such a struggle in our own community, and it is asking for your assistance. You can help by urging an organization to which you belong to join the Association; by letting your representatives on the county board and city councils know that you want their workers’ rights respected; and by coming to the meetings of these public bodies when the issue is discussed and voted on.
The Champaign County Living Wage Association invites people to visit its web site here. It can also be contacted by mail and phone at
PO Box 953, Urbana 61803; 344-5609.