Now let’s turn to the big picture of “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1). We have a big problem in this country with income inequality. We have all seen the statistics that compare executive pay to the lowly wages of the worker bees. And I will not belabor the point except to summarize that the low end of the economic food chain in this country is grossly underpaid compared to what they contribute. Free-market capitalism in our wage structure – that is, paying the lowest wage possible that the market will support to hire my workers – is one of the principle drivers of this inequality.
But the biblical position is not free-market capitalism in the wage structure, it is treating workers with justice and fairness. As believers, we should be supporting wage scales that people can live on. Wages that can support a family. Wages that reflect workers sharing in the harvest.
The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, “It is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.”
Today’s workers are not sharing in the harvest. Instead they are captive to a market-driven pay scale. What do I mean by market-driven pay? Let me give you a story from my own work experience.
Several years ago, in the days of top secret salaries, a new coworker of mine who had just joined the company leaked the fact that he was making about $10,000 per year more than I was. His work experience was actually a little less than mine, so it caused some angst on my part. I approached my boss about the income disparity. My supervisor was very straight-forward, “Jay, we can pay you less because you are already here. We have to pay the other guy more to get him to leave his former employer.”
This is market-driven wages. There was no thought for fairness. There was no concern for loyalty. There was no consideration for the fact that I had discovered millions of dollars of oil and gas for the company without sharing in the harvest. Now, I am not sharing this story for your sympathy. I am well-paid and we have been blessed to raise a family of five children on my salary. I am sharing this to illustrate the concept. And its implementation is more painful the farther we go down the wage scale.
I have also observed this corollary to market-driven wages in the workplace. A market downturn causes a company to lay off workers. The remaining employees start working 50 and 60 hour weeks to keep the company afloat. The message from management to the overworked staff is “just be grateful you still have a job.” Then, when things turn around and the market improves, the company realizes that they can maximize their profits in the rising market by not hiring the new workers they need but just keep riding their current employees to keep working harder. It is not a picture of justice and fairness.
Or how about the current minimum wage discussion. When I was in college, I worked a minimum wage job as a groundskeeper. By my last year in school, the minimum wage was $2.65/hr. It sounds pretty small now. But by comparison, my college costs (tuition and room and board) were around $2500/year. Now the comparable college cost in 2015 at a four-year public school like I attended is about $19,000/year, a 660% increase. So maybe we should increase the current minimum wage to a 660% of the $2.65 that I was making then so that college students could actually afford to pay for their education. Oh by the way, that would be a minimum wage of $20.14/hr, a far cry above the current and dismal wage of $7.25/hr.
Because of our marriage of American-style capitalism with American-style Christianity, I think we sometimes fear association with the liberal camp if we support increased wages for workers. But this is not a liberal vs. conservative issue. This is a justice and fairness issue. And the Bible makes it quite clear where we are to land.