Saint Frances and the Minimum Wage
What does Saint Francis have to do with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s proposal to raise the city’s minimum wage from $9.32 to $15 an hour? Other than befriending and becoming one of the poor, the Italian Catholic friar that preached to the birds has nothing to do with the lowest hourly remuneration in the birthplace of Nirvana and Starbucks. Frances Perkins, a saint of the Episcopal Church and whose commemoration falls during the second week of May each year, does have a connection, however. Added to the Church’s calendar of lesser feasts and fasts in 2009, she was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet when she served as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In this position from 1933 to 1945, Perkins helped to establish the first federal minimum wage laws for American laborers.
Perkins was Commissioner of Labor for the State of New York under then-Governor Roosevelt before he asked her to join his cabinet after his presidential election in 1932. She proved instrumental in helping to craft and to pass Roosevelt’s “Second New Deal” initiatives in the late 1930s, chiefly the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) of 1938. Among introducing other favorable policies for workers like “time-and-a-half” for overtime hours and a maximum 44-hour/7-day workweek, the FLSA established a national minimum wage with the language:
Sec. 6. (a) Every employer shall pay to each of his employees who is engaged incommerce or in the production of goods for commerce wages at the following rates –
(1) during the first year from the effective date of this section, not less than 25 cents an hour,
(2) during the next six years from such date, not less than 30 cents an hour,
(3) after the expiration of seven years from such date, not less than 40 cents an hour.
Signed into law on May 25, 2007, the Fair Minimum Wage Act amended the FLSA and gradually raised minimum wages to the current $7.25 an hour.
States, cities, and other local governments can also set their own minimum wages as long as they are equal to or greater than the federally mandated rates. The State of Washington, which already had the country’s highest minimum wage of $9.19 an hour at the end of 2013, increased it to $9.32 an hour, effective January 1, 2014. The mayor of Seattle didn’t think this was enough pay for his city’s employees, and two days later, he signed his first Executive Order directing multiple government departments “to develop a comprehensive implementation plan that ensures a minimum hourly wage of fifteen dollars ($15) for employees of the City of Seattle.” At the beginning of this month, Murray presented the resulting plan that calls for a gradual increase to the $15-an-hour mark over the next seven years.
Circumstances in Seattle and much of the rest of the nation aren’t the same as they were in Perkins’s time when she lamented falling wages in the wake of the Great Depression in a 1933 op-ed for Nation’s Business, but the effects of insufficient wages remain the same eight decades later. She wrote,
As wages in these shops fall, it means an increased pressure for lower wages throughout the industry. But it means more than that. It means, in fact, lower wages in every other industry. Certainly people working for ten dollars a week are not a market for automobiles, or gasoline, or radios, or motion picture tickets; for any commodity, in fact, except the barest necessities of life—and frequently not even those.
Echoing these sentiments from Perkins, the co-chair of Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee (IIAC) said earlier this month that a dwindling middle class and declining wages for many of this country’s laborers “isn’t only bad for American workers, it’s bad for America. When workers have less income, businesses have fewer customers and governments spend more on social services.”
Perkins began thinking about these wage issues when she served as the head of the New York Consumers League in 1910, 19 years before Roosevelt appointed her as the first Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor. In these roles she began to develop her sense of working conditions for laborers, and these theories eventually helped her to craft the language of the FLSA. A typeset outline entitled, “What Constitutes a Good Job,” from Perkins’s early years in Roosevelt’s presidential cabinet lists under “Wages”:
(a) Subsistence – plus
(b) Purchasing power through wages
(c) Minima fixed by somebody so that no complaint of wage cutting below fair level
(d) Adequate (what they are)
1. Maintain self and family in sound American standard of living
paying for housing – food – clothing
medical care – insurance – savings and provision for age and emergency, recreation and travel
On May 9, 2014, Murray compressed most of Perkins’s subsection (d) above into the 140-character limit of his tweet, “America is watching and cheering us on as we in Seattle work to raise the minimum wage for our low-wage workers who struggle to afford the basics.”
When Perkins retired from government service not long after Roosevelt’s death, she wrote in a letter to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, “I came to work for God, F.D.R., and the millions of forgotten, plain, common working men.” Her advocacy for wages and working conditions still touches these millions of laboring women and men in America today. Regardless of whether one believes, like Seattle’s Mayor Murray, that these minimum wages should be increased by almost 60 percent, the spirit behind Saint Frances’s public service remains an ideal for emulation. “Help us, following her example,” reads her prayer in the Episcopal Church’s Holy Women, Holy Men book of saints, “to contend tirelessly for justice and for the protection of all in need.”
Win Bassett has written for the Paris Review, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Guernica. He’s a former assistant district attorney and serves on the PEN Prison Writing Program Fiction Committee. Follow him on Twitter @winbassett.