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Let’s put labor back in Labor Day

Let’s focus on labor this Labor Day. Let’s not forget the heroism of American workers in the past, who by banding together won victories that we take for granted, such as the eight-hour workday, the 40-hour workweek, the end of child labor and salaries sufficient to support their families.  After declining for decades, the labor movement in the U.S. is growing at a pace not seen since the Great Depression.  For example, last December a single Starbucks store in Buffalo successfully voted in a union. Today, employees in more than 200 Starbucks stores nationwide have voted for unions.

A year ago, JusticeND, a coalition of concerned faculty and staff, began a university-wide discussion about the fairness of the wages being paid to hourly staff.  Noting that Notre Dame’s minimum wage fell far short of meeting the basic needs of families of living in South Bend, we called upon Notre Dame to follow Catholic Social Teaching, which demands that employers pay living wages.   Notre Dame students joined this dialogue by launching their own “Raise the Standard Campaign,” which pushed for raising student wages and widening participation in deliberations about salaries and working conditions.  

We were encouraged that, in July, Notre Dame announced salary increases, which raised the pay of faculty and staff by 3% and set a minimum wage of $15 per hour for work-study students and $17.50 per hour for all other hourly workers.  These increases are an important first step. But much more needs to be done. According to new research last year by the Notre Dame Center for Social Research, the new minimum wage for entry-level positions at Notre Dame does not provide a financially stable situation for most families.

Raising low wages benefits not just Notre Dame staff and faculty. It benefits the entire the South Bend community. Notre Dame is the largest employer in South Bend, a poor city with a median household income of only $42,657, which is far below the national average of $64,994 (these figures are 5-year averages from 2016 to 2020 in real (2020) dollars).  Black households in South Bend average only about half the income of white households. If Notre Dame is to be, recalling Fr. Sorin’s words, a “powerful force for good” in South Bend, we must take responsibility not only for the poverty in South Bend but for the policies that created and maintain the racial wealth gap. 

Notre Dame’s mission obliges us to cultivate in our students, “a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice, and oppression that burden the lives of so many.”  We cannot teach the history of the labor movement and social encyclicals without taking responsibility for the justice of our own labor policies.  The progress that we made last year was the fruit of disciplined reflection and dialogue about our collective obligations to the most vulnerable members of our community. JusticeND calls upon all members of the Notre Dame community to press forward, particularly as the cost-of-living continues to rise.  Let’s take time on this Labor Day to ask ourselves what new strides we will look back upon on Labor Day 2023. 

Clark Power
John Duffy
Steve Fallon

Aug. 29

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