Work and Wages

The private property system under which we live has assumed the form in which most men get the property they need by working for it. By the wage contract a man hires out his labour to anther for a definite sum of money known as a wage or salary. We single out the wage contract for special treatment because it brings up the whole question of industrial relations, the problem of capital and labour. We must discuss the following topics:

  1. Is the wage system just. 
  2. How the minimum just wage is determined.
  3. Does man have a right to work.
  4. Are Labour unions justified.
  5. Whether lockouts and boycotts are justified.


The Wage System


A wage:  is the retribution of the worker’s labour by his employer, under a bilateral contract.

Division: The individual and family salaries are those which suffice respectively for one or for a family (which is either relative to the number of children, or absolute defined by the average family).

The wage system seems to be as old as history and is accepted everywhere. Though perhaps not the only possible arrangement between employer and employee, it is in itself a valid and just contract.

Under the wage system the workman gets a fixed wage but has no share in the profits and losses, whereas the owner gets the profits and also sustains the losses. Thus the workman has income security, which he needs most because of his lack of capital; the owner takes the risks and losses, which his reserve capital enables him to absorb, and he also has the profits as his compensation for the risks and losses.

The owner may not take all the profits and then put off the losses on the labourer when profits fail. The paying of a fixed wage and a just wage is his first obligation, taking precedence over all others, even over payment for raw materials purchased.

The workman, having been justly recompensed for his labour and having put nothing else into the business, he does not deserve a share in the profits just as he is not liable for the losses.

The worker must be paid a fixed wage sufficient for his won and his family’s support. However a fixed wage means that it is fixed over a certain period specified by contract, and not that it is wholly static. 

The salary as such is not dishonest[1], and the absolute family salary is due to the worker in strict justice.[2] 

  • Vs. socialists who consider the salary to be unjust because they see the labor as the only cause of production, and thus the entire benefit should be given them[3].  However, the capital has a major import in the production (equipment, factories, prime material...).
  • Vs. the liberals, the labourer has a strict right to his wage:
  • Since the labour is by hypothesis the only means of sustenance of the worker, his wage must cover the needs of raising himself and his family (to provide for man and the propagation of the human race).
  • since his labor profits the whole society and the common good, the worker has a strict right to the part of this common good, ie. the absolute wage to support a family.
  • The labourer has a right in commutative justice (the mutual relations of both are ‘ad strictissimae justitiae leges’[4] because the relation between. capital and labour (employer and employee) are of strict justice since both are 2 private persons, and the salary must be measured by the absolute family salary.


Minimum Just Wage

The minimum just wage means the least amount any regular workman ought to be paid for his work. By regular workman we mean here an adult competent full-time employee who makes his living by giving his whole working day to his employer.

How can the minimum just wage be determined?

  1. Not by the length of time spent in work as time itself can not form as a standard of measurement.
  2. Not by the usefulness of a certain labourer to his employer, as the minimum wage has no reference to the quality of the work.
  3. Not by the law of supply and demand since alone, since this would leave ought the moral question of justice or what is fitting.
  4. It is to be determined from the function of human labour. Ie, the purpose for which men work.

Hence, in concrete, the salary is determined according to : 1º the sustenance of the family or the individual, 2º the condition of the factory or company etc, 3º the necessity of the common good (average salary neither too low nor too high).

A minimum just wage must be sufficient to support a man and his family in reasonable and frugal comfort. What does such a wage entail? The possibility to:

  1.  A home which is decent, private, and sanitary,
  2. Sufficient and wholesome food.
  3. Enough time off for sleep and some relaxation (recreation).
  4. A small surplus for various other things. 


Labour Unions

A labour union is a voluntary and self-ruled association of workers to safeguard their rights and promote their welfare; it thus consists in a pact made between the employer and a union of labourers which sets reciprocal conditions of work. Collective bargaining is its chief function. In itself it is to be recommended since it favours peace, gives security to the labourers, as well as to the employers.

 Legitimacy of Labour unions:

M: The use of legitimate means to a legitimate end is ethically justified.

M: But the labour union is a legitimate means to attain a legitimate end.

Ergo: Labour unions are legitimate.


Labour union has as its end the obtaining of fair wages and fair treatment, to these the worker has a strict right, as is evident from the dignity of the human person.

However it’s true to say that Labour unions are open to abuse. But the abuse does not destroy the legitimate use.

No one should be forced to join a union, but, if the situation is such that the union cannot achieve its end unless all the workers are organized or if some are taking the benefits gained by union activity while evading the burdens of membership, it seems right that those who will not join should be denied jobs. No one has  a right to this particular job, and he who wants it should take the conditions attached to it. But if a large part of the workers do not want unionisation, it would be unjust to force it on them. The so-called “right-to-work laws,” outlawing the closed shop union shop, seem justified only if the abuses cannot be handled by less drastic measures, a controverted issue dependent on local conditions.

            Likewise the closed union is not wrong in principle. Unions have a right to limit membership and form a closed union, if otherwise their trade will be glutted w/ new men seeking to displace tried and reliable members who have given the union its prestige. But if limited membership is used, as sometimes happens, to create unduly high wages through artificial scarcity of workers, an unjust monopoly of labour is created against the public good.



1.    A strike is: a concerted cessation of labour to obtain certain advantages (a kind of economic war).

The strike is the chief weapon is the hands of labour for enforcing its demands. Since the purpose of organised labour is to equalize the bargaining power between employer and employee, the only way to counteract refusal to pay fairly is by a concerted refusal to work. 

Are Strikes morally justifiable?

Conditions for a justifiable strike:

  1. There must be just cause.
  2. There should be proper authorisation.
  3. The strike must be the last resort.
  4. Only rightful means may be used.

However Strikes in se:

  •  Many evils may follow from the strike : workers get no salary; employers lose gain (present and future, loss of clients), moral evils (hatred, corruption of customs, blasphemes against religion).
  •  Strikes are licit within due conditions: proportionate reasons, it must be the only means to obtain a just solution of the conflict (no war is licit if the effect can be had by other means), not prohibited in the work contract, no use of violence towards other employees who want to work.
  •  Lock-outs, dismissal of employees can be licit within due conditions.
  •  Boycotts – the concerted refusal of patronise a certain business establishment and a persuading of others  to join this refusal. This is also licit within due conditions.
  •  Public authority cannot suppress strikes as unlawful as such, but for the common good, it can place limits and conditions so as to avoid common grave detriment.
  • Strikes directly opposed to public welfare and service are illicit.[1]vs. the socialists who pretend that the capital-employer’s benefit is theft.


[2]vs. the Liberal capitalists who teach that the salary is just as long as it is a mutual contract regardless of the family sufficiency (cf. Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, and Pius XI in Divini Redemptoris #31,49).

[3]Karl Marx, ‘Das Kapital’

[4]Quadrag. anno.