|John A. Ryan|
Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian of education at New York University, reminds us that the idea of a “minimum wage” in America has its roots in Catholic social teaching. Here is a taste of his piece at Tikkun:
The term was coined by John A. Ryan, a Catholic priest and the leading figure in the minimum-wage movement. Born to Irish immigrants on a Minnesota farm in 1869, Ryan watched bankers prosper while common laborers struggled to make ends meet. “We must have a more just distribution of wealth,” Ryan wrote in his diary in 1894. “We must have less individualism, more humanity and no absolutely unrestrained competition.”
Twelve years later, in 1906, Ryan published A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects. Rejecting the dominant laissez-faire doctrines of his day, Ryan argued that minimum-wage laws would affirm the dignity of all working Americans…
In 1912, Massachusetts became the first American state to adopt a minimum wage; the following year, eight more states followed suit. But many of these measures were struck down, especially after the Supreme Court voided the District of Columbia’s minimum-wage law in 1923. According to the court, the D.C. measure violated citizens’ “liberty of contract”; it also extracted an “arbitrary payment” from employers.
Nonsense, Ryan replied. The Supreme Court’s decision reflected the “extreme individualism” of America’s “Puritan” heritage, he argued. Americans needed to leaven that tradition with the “social and organic” principles of Catholicism, Ryan added, which emphasized our shared duties to each other.