From a Just Hope to a Just Wage Economy

by Daniel Graff and Clemens Sedmak

Prof. Dan Graff is professor of practice in the Department of History and director of the Higgins Labor Program of the Center for Social Concerns at University of Notre Dame. He is the recipient of Notre Dame’s 2023 Rev. William A. Toohey, C.S.C., Award for Social Justice and won a first place in Best
Reporting of Social Justice Issues from the 2023 Catholic Press Awards (USA).

Prof. Clemens Sedmak is a professor of social ethics at the Keough School of Global Affairs and serves as director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, University of Notre Dame. He is interested in Catholic Social Tradition, his most recent books: Enacting Integral Human Development (2023), Enacting Catholic Social Tradition (2022).

The Widespread Wage Problem

As we write, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) are in the midst of an unprecedented simultaneous strike of “the Big Three” American automakers: General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. The list of pent-up frustrations leading to this walkout is long, involving everything from pay to pensions, plant closings, job protections, two-tiered hiring, the length of the work week, and the transition from gas to electric vehicles. Despite the complexity and contentiousness of the issues driving the conflict, much of the mainstream media’s coverage, focuses exclusively on the question of hourly wages. Our local newspaper, for example, the South Bend [Indiana] Tribune, reduced the dispute to a catalogue of competing “wage and benefit offers” and counteroffers, nothing but dollars and cents and percentages.[1]

Such constricted coverage of labour conflict is commonplace in the United States, where short-term analysis of macroeconomic trends involving the gross domestic product, stock prices, and interest and unemployment rates dominates economic discussion. This focus on numbers above all else not only narrows the scope of economic debate but also normalises the assumptions and aspirations of what could be called ‘the neoliberal project’, presenting weakened workers, rampant inequality, and persistent poverty as ordinary, even necessary outcomes.[2] In such a context, proposals inviting a broader consideration of the policies and relationships that fundamentally shape our lives and prospects get characterised as unrealistic and irresponsible threats to the ‘natural order’ of things. In the case of the current UAW strike, even the union’s ostensible allies warn against proffering an “overly ambitious list of demands” rather than being “careful about killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”[3]

Though this is not the venue to vet the merits of the UAW’s “audacious” proposals (or the Big Three’s counters), it certainly takes no audacity to suggest that most working people (in the USA or elsewhere) would not characterise the economy of the past several decades as anything resembling “a golden egg.”[4]  Indeed, economic inequality is one of the most pressing issues of our time. At all levels – from individual households to titanic corporations, both within the United States and beyond via the global supply chains connecting us – problems of pay demand our attention, intersecting related struggles for inclusion and equality. Persistent gender wage gaps, stubborn disparities in unemployment rates by race, and widening gulfs between the salaries of executives and everyone else – all these point to fundamental labour problems requiring redress.[5] From Baltimore to Bangladesh, far too many people struggle with making ends meet on a weekly basis. Living hand to mouth, too many households must rely on multiple wage earners (sometimes working multiple jobs), and even those who do get by are only one work accident, job loss, or family illness removed from economic disaster.[6] In short, too many of the world’s people are compelled to participate in what we might call a “just hope” economy, where they literally must hope (and pray) that they and their loved ones will avoid a variety of worst-case scenarios each working day.

Thinking About Wage Justice

This is the state of affairs that led us to form an interdisciplinary working group of colleagues at the University of Notre Dame, guided by a core question: What makes any given wage just or unjust? Searching for a common vocabulary to facilitate conversations amongst those unused to communicating beyond their own academic disciplines, we turned to Catholic Social Teaching (CST), whose long, rich tradition emphasises the dignity of those who work for others, the rights of all to participate in economic decisions, and a commitment to the common good. In fact, ever since the first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, published by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, the question of just wages has been a central question in the social ethics of the Church.[7] As Pope John Paul II reaffirmed in his 1981 social encyclical Laborem Exercens, “there is no more important way for securing a just relationship between the worker and the employer than that constituted by remuneration for work.” But he went further than that, arguing that “a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system.”[8] Informed by these moral tenets of CST, and drawing together scholars and students from history, theology, business, law, sociology, economics, and other disciplines, we formed the Just Wage Initiative to probe this question of a just wage.

We started our discussions with simple questions and exercises. Do you know a person who is overpaid? If so, why would you say that? Think of the professional hierarchy an organisation such as a hospital: if the chief surgeon makes the equivalent of a 100, how much should justly be paid to a receptionist, a cook, a custodian, a doctor in residence, a nurse, a business manager, support staff?[9] How much money do you think you need to live a decent life in your home town? We also analysed interviews with twenty custodians that a research team at the University of Salzburg conducted in Austria; these interviews pointed to workers’ concerns with lack of recognition (including respect, reputation, and remuneration), powerlessness, stress and anxiety due to dense control patterns, and, more generally, the sometimes humiliating experience of invisibility.[10]

Insights gleaned from these discussions prompted some initial ambivalence on the question of a “just wage.“ Just a wage, we thought? Clearly it takes much more to construct a fair and dignified employment relationship than merely an adequate level of remuneration. Even a high wage will not automatically constitute what Randy Hodson has described as “workplace dignity,” defined as “the ability to establish a sense of self-worth and self-respect and to appreciate the respect of others.”[11] Clearly, we thought our concept of a just wage must be informed by recognition that the lack of one would not only reveal a workplace vulnerable to undignified conditions, but also make the entire life of a person and household at risk of not finding conditions of decent living.

The Just Wage Initiative

The deeper research into Catholic social thought and the interdisciplinary discussions on contemporary economic and workplace issues led to the creation of the Just Wage Framework,[12] an online tool designed to raise awareness, encourage discernment, and foster dialogue amongst diverse stakeholders in the search for a more just economy. Foregrounding the human elements and moral issues inherent in the core labour and economic relationships giving shape to our lives, this tool aims to move us beyond the narrow number crunching that often poses as informed analysis even as it sidesteps inconvenient ethical dilemmas and blind spots.

Our Just Wage Framework consists of seven intersecting criteria which together promote a fairer and more inclusive workplace and economy, where a just wage:

  1. Enables a decent life for the worker and the worker’s household;
  2. Facilitates asset building;
  3. Features social security to mitigate the risks accompanying unemployment, injury, and old age;
  4. Non-discriminatory and promotes inclusion;
  5. Not excessive;
  6. Reflects participation by workers;
  7. Recognises qualification, performance, and type of work.

Visualised as a honeycomb of hexagons (see Figure 1 below), the Just Wage Framework offers a novel approach to the problem of pay that goes beyond dollars and cents. Instead of focusing solely on numbers, the Just Wage Framework features a holistic and qualitative representation of the employment relationship that takes into account money, to be sure, but also so much more. For each of these criteria we provide a textual basis from CST documents; in addition, each criterion features indicators for the user to measure her answer against our priorities, as well as resources for to learn more.

The Benefits of a Just Wage Framework

Let us finally identify five reasons why we think our approach is useful in the struggle for a fairer and more just economy. First, the Just Wage Framework emphasises the interconnectedness of the seven criteria, arguing that they are all important, integrating with each other, and collaborating to promote justice at work. The criteria are connected but not ranked, because no one criterion is more foundational than another. In order to appreciate the complexity of the wage relationship, it is more important to see the links connecting, rather than the lines separating, the criteria.

Second, the Just Wage Framework is holistic and qualitative in the name of promoting discernment and dialogue; it does not produce a particular dollar figure or point total for arguing over, one that might alienate users before they even take the time to think about the issues. In addition, by rejecting that a just wage might be easily measured via a numerical value, our Just Wage Framework challenges the narrow number-driven approach that governs so much of our dialogue and decision-making on economic and labour matters. Instead, we aim to invite stakeholder reflection, encourage further research, and facilitate dialogue that will hopefully lead to action.

Third, a Just Wage, as we see it, is more complex and robust than a minimum wage or even a living wage – any wage definition that focuses solely on dollars per hour. You simply cannot capture the justness of a wage scenario solely in terms of money, because things like health, stress, time off, and a voice at work matter just as much. The Just Wage Framework is certainly not oppositional to tools such as MIT’s Living Wage Calculator,[13] which links zip codes to cost of living to produce the income required to survive across the US. Our approach aims to build from that by expanding and deepening the wage conversation. That includes thinking not only about floors, but also about ceilings, which is why criterion five – a just wage is not excessive – has generated perhaps the most interest and opposition in our presentations and consultations with diverse stakeholders. Too often, the focus of public debate is on minimums and ignore maximums; in reality, the minimums are a problem because of unjust maximums.

Fourth, our just wage tool is designed for use by multiple stakeholders, which is why it is relatively straightforward and worded to accommodate different approaches. We hope that an entrepreneur thinking about hiring will use it, that a labour or community leader developing a campaign will deploy it, and that a political candidate or elected official will exploit it to help develop new legislation. Further, when we say multiple stakeholders, we mean Catholic and non-Catholic alike. We began with CST because we are at a Catholic institution, housed at an institute whose mission is to engage CST. But the principles of CST related to work and the economy are neither unique nor unfamiliar to those from other faiths or secular traditions. The dignity of work, the integral irreducible importance of every person, the right to participate in community decision-making, and the right to a share in the fruits of our collective labour. These are all common – even common sense – notions that too often get dropped in economic matters. The point is to employ a moral lens to reframe foundational questions in order to generate more productive answers in the cause of a more just economy.

Fifth, a just wage is the fruit of multiple stakeholder dialogue and negotiation, and therefore a just wage will vary from place to place, depending on the concrete context giving it shape. Furthermore, a just wage cannot be imposed by an employer on workers, and it cannot be produced by government policy alone. Both employers and government are crucial voices in the construction of a just wage, but so too are workers, consumers, and all the communities that shape and are shaped by any given enterprise. This is critical, and because the outcome of a just wage dialogue cannot be predetermined, that is why we do not specify a particular wage figure or assume that it will be the same in every workplace. We hope that this last facet makes our Just Wage Framework useful to those in a variety of national contexts, even though it was developed primarily by those whose expertise is in American and European history, politics, and policymaking.

A Conversation Worth Beginning

The model that we suggest is a conversation starter, not a conversation stopper; the idea of a just wage cannot be separated from questions of a decent life and human dignity. As we commemorated seventy-five years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2023, we do not want to forget that this Universal Declaration expresses not only the right to work, but also “the right to just and favourable remuneration” that can ensure “an existence worthy of human dignity.”[14] Justice and dignity cannot be separated. Persons do not live by bread alone – but bread is necessary for a dignified life and a wage can buy so much more than bread; a just wage can buy just hope.


[1] Michelle Chapman and Tom Krisher, “UAW rejects wage offers from Detroit automakers,” South Bend Tribune, Sep. 10, 2023, A14.
[2] For a brief introduction to the history and politics of neoliberalism, see Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2021). For a recent debate amongst US historians on whether neoliberalism is dead, see Gary Gerstle, Amy C. Offner, and Julia Ott, “Is It Over?,” Dissent (Fall 2023), 17-26.
[3] Steven Rattner, “The United Auto Workers Is Overplaying Its Hand, Risking Our Economy and the Election,” New York Times, Sep 20, 2023. Rattner, who headed President Barak Obama’s automobile task force during the Great Recession and pushed the UAW to grant significant concessions in 2009 negotiations with the government-restructured and bailed-out GM and Chrysler, admits that autoworkers are worthy of significant wage increases, but he argues that “they are asking for too much.”
[4] UAW president Sean Fain himself has characterised the union’s contract demands as “audacious,” perhaps intending his members and the wider public to wonder why matters such as higher wages, equal pay across the board, shorter work weeks, greater job security, and protection from the threat of technological displacement should be seen as so outlandish. See Tom Krisher and the Associated Press, “Combative new UAW president’s ‘audacious’ contract demands to Ford, GM and Stellantis include a 46% pay rise and a 32-hour workweek,” Fortune, Sep. 4, 2023.
[5] For elaboration on these themes, see “The Just Wage Forum 2021,” a series of video conversations featuring scholars and practitioners, in particular the “Just Wage Forum Opening Session: Promoting a Just Wage Economy,” featuring historian Dan Graff, social ethicist Clemens Sedmak, management professor Charlice Hurst, and economist Donald Stabile, Just Wage Initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, Feb. 12, 2021.
[6] A detailed and telling case study of this dynamic of (the unequal distribution of) vulnerability has been published by British poverty researcher David Hulme, who followed one particular family in Bangladesh over a long period of time; because of illness and injustice the household fell from a status of being “occasionally poor” into chronic poverty. See David Hulme, “Thinking ‘Small’ and the Understanding of Poverty: Maymana and Mofizul’s Story,” IDPM Working Paper 22 (2003); David Hulme and Karen Moore, “Thinking Small and Thinking Big about Poverty: Maymana and Mofizul’s Story Updated,” The Bangladesh Development Studies, 33.3 (2010), 69–96.
[7] Leo XIII was very clear in his language and message: “To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime.” Rerum Novarum (1891), §20. A note about gender: Earlier CST statements in particular used as default the male pronoun, expressing a conventional (if modern) understanding of ideal households populated by male breadwinners, female homemakers, and their children. While more recent pronouncements reveal a greater commitment to gender equality at work, an enduring preference for the breadwinner model of one wage-earning parent and one (unwaged) home caring parent suggests unresolved questions confronting not only CST but all advocates for a just economy, especially amidst a social reality where two (or more) adult incomes are increasingly common.
[8] John Paul II, Laborem Exercens (1981), §19, emphasis added.
[9] It may be useful to give an example of how this works out. Let’s imagine a situation where the chief surgeon makes “100” and that equals €250,000. If we judge that the salary of the nurse should be “66” and that the cook is worth “25”, then their respective “just-wage” salaries would be in the range of €165,000 and €62,500 each. It is fair to say that the Irish Health Service does not remunerate nurses and cooks in such a fashion.
[10] Cf. Clemens Sedmak, Anstaendige Institutionen (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2024), Chapter 8.
[11] Randy Hodson, Dignity at Work (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001), 3.
[12] Center for Social Concerns, “Just Wage Initiative,” accessed 22 January 2024,
[13] Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Living Wage Calculator,” accessed 22 January 2024,
[14] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23, 3.