Just Wage Symposium presents new approach to question of economic fairness

By: JP Shortall

July 13, 2018

Wages are currently measured by two standards in the United States. A minimum wage is the lowest wage employers are legally allowed to pay employees, while a living wage is usually defined as one that is sufficient to maintain a basic standard of living for the earner.

At a symposium in Washington, D.C., on June 12, 2018, the Just Wage Working Group of the Higgins Labor Program at the Center for Social Concerns presented a framework and tool designed to help determine if a wage meets a third, more robust standard: a just wage. Rooted in the Catholic social tradition (CST), a just wage concerns not only minimums but also maximums, adding consideration not only of an employer’s ability to pay but also whether some wages (like executive pay) are too excessive.

The symposium opened with an afternoon session where 30 labor organizers, advocates, and practitioners provided feedback on the proposed framework and tool. Later that same evening, more than 100 people attended the public unveiling of the just wage framework and tool, as well as heard remarks by the following distinguished speakers: Congressman Brendan Boyle (ND ‘99) from Pennsylvania’s 13th district; Sr. Quincy Howard, O.P. from the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice; Ms. Maria Elena Durazo, Vice President of UNITE HERE; and Rev. Kevin Sandberg, C.S.C., Leo and Arlene Hawk Executive Director, Center for Social Concerns, University of Notre Dame. Each speaker addressed the question of wage justice from their particular perspective.

The just wage framework includes seven criteria with multiple indicators for each to determine whether the criteria are fulfilled or not. Criteria include whether or not a wage allows for asset-building, offers basic social security for the worker and her family or household, and is part of a non-discriminatory wage structure. The group is also developing an online tool that will allow users to determine whether or not a given wage scenario is just.

The Just Wage Working Group was formed in the fall of 2016 by two faculty members with joint appointments at the Center for Social Concerns. Dan Graff, who directs the Center’s Higgins Labor Program, is a professor of the practice in the department of history, where he specializes in U.S. labor; Clemens Sedmak, is professor of social ethics in the Keough School of Global Affairs and advisor in Catholic social tradition at the Center for Social Concerns. It includes faculty from multiple departments across the University, including law, sociology, and management.

As Graff explains it, “the Just Wage Working Group first came together to talk about a foundational question of CST: on what grounds can any wage be called just or unjust? By looking at the just wage question through the lens of CST—along with historical, sociological, legal, economic, and other normative approaches—the group offers a unique opportunity to foster dialogue not only between academic disciplines but also among professors, policymakers, and practitioners alike.”

Moving forward, the group hopes to have the online Just Wage Tool operational by the end of the coming academic year. As Graff notes of the recent symposium, “We accomplished our goal of getting constructive feedback from experts based in our nation's capital, and we returned to campus energized to continue the effort."
The Higgins Labor Program (HLP) is an interdisciplinary unit of the Center for Social Concerns (CSC) sponsoring research, education, and community engagement on issues involving work, labor organization, and social justice.

Contact: Dan Graff, Higgins Labor Program Director, (574) 631-5845,


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