Humanizing the just wage conversation in labor mediation

April 29, 2022

What makes any wage excessive? This question is at the heart of one of seven criteria that make up the Just Wage Framework, a tool created by the interdisciplinary Higgins Labor Program to determine the justness of any given wage scenario. The concept of excessive wage is also one that Kevin Hawkins, ‘81, mediation technology specialist at Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service (FMCS), uses to mediate negotiations between management and worker groups. During the 2021–22 academic year, Hawkins served as one of the center’s community fellows, connecting applications of the Just Wage Initiative to his 19 years of work in collective bargaining settings.

As a community fellow, part of Hawkins’ role is to convene new conversations between Notre Dame and local communities. On April 21, Hawkins spoke about his work and research at an Engaged Learning Forum hosted by the center titled “Finding common ground: Promoting a just wage economy through mediation.” The event was attended by University faculty and staff, students, local labor organizers, and other community members. 

Hawkins engaged attendees in a discussion on the often competing concerns of management and employees. Attendees noted that management considers an array of values in collective bargaining like the long-term sustainability of an organization and returns such as financial profit, productivity, and success of employees. They described workers as valuing returns such as workplace culture, salary, and desirable job duties. 

After discussing these differences, Hawkins shared that mediators work to help constituents see commonalities despite disparities by serving as a conduit for conversation and providing an objective viewpoint. Hawkins also pointed to language as having great value in this work. He talked about the language of “fairness” in collective bargaining, which is often ineffective because so many people and parties use the word to mean different things. Instead, he tends to use less subjective words and concepts such as feasible, equitable, or reasonable.

Regarding the utility of the Just Wage Framework within the field of labor mediation, Hawkins highlighted its ability to provide language and ideas to humanize the dialogue between management and employee groups, an important step in negotiations. According to Hawkins, the tool helps to reframe conversations during mediation, particularly in relation to quality of life issues. To this end, Hawkins also encourages participants in the collective bargaining process to argue the other side’s point as a way to see the human in each other. “Seeing labor as an investment keeps employers from humanizing the conversation,” Hawkins said, “The human component has a place in the conversation.”

Learn more about the Just Wage Initiative at