Should the Minimum Wage be Considered a Civil Right?

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Prof. Oren M. Levin-Waldman will discuss his most recent article: “Should the Minimum Wage be Considered a Civil Right? By Dr. OREN M. LEVIN-WALDMAN, Ph.D.” on Wednesday, September 27, 2017th at 10am DST on the Westchester On the Level radio broadcast. Listen “Live” or “On Demand”. Use the following hyperlink …


Should the Minimum Wage be Considered a Civil Right? By Dr. OREN M. LEVIN-WALDMAN, Ph.D.

It has been commonplace to view low-wages as a symptom of a global market place where technology has been able to replace middle class jobs, especially those lacking any real skill. That is, an oversupply of low-skilled workers, according to the laws of supply and demand, will drive down the wages of low-skilled workers. The only solution, then, is for these workers to obtain the training and skills necessary to command higher wages.

A second school of thought holds that these global forces have only been exacerbated by the decline of labor market institutions like unions and minimum wages that traditionally served to bolster wages. In the past in this space I have argued that in the face of an increasingly global economy, a strengthening of labor market institutions is critical, rather than the standard neoclassical argument that workers really need to be more flexible.

It would appear that there is perhaps a third approach that has not really been considered, but will need to be as more workers find themselves unable to find decent paying jobs. What if we were to consider a livable wage a civil rights issue, and low pay as nothing less than domination and exploitation that effectively deprives workers of their freedom?

Marxists will no doubt claim that capitalist markets are by definition about domination and worker exploitation. Although paid wages for their time, workers during that time are subject to the control of their employers. They get no more for their labor than their wages even though it is their labor that adds value to the firms they work for. Would any of these companies really be profitable were it not for the labor of their workers? And yet, they don’t share in the profits.

Whereas corporate managers have property rights in the companies they operate on behalf of shareholders, i.e. the ones who own, workers do not have property rights in their labor. If workers’ labor then would be defined in terms of property rights, could the effective deprivation of those rights by not paying their workers liveable wages be seen as tantamount to a civil rights violation? In other words, is the payment of low wages tantamount to employer theft?

Civil rights are most often identified with anti-discrimination law, but they are also more broadly associated with legal responses to inequality and subordination along lines of socially significant group differences. Many may see disparities as being inconsistent with a commitment to human equality, which is as good a watchword for anti-discrimination law as any. As the lowest paid workers tend to hail from groups central to anti-discrimination projects, it would appear that their status as low paid workers means that they are not being treated on an equal footing with others, and certainly not with those with more resources.

The issue of property rights is also by no means a trivial issue. The concept of property is central to the American experience and property rights are fundamental to the protection of individual liberty from arbitrary exercises of authority.

Early republicans considered free labor to be the basis of personal freedom. One who was self-employed or earned enough because one was in a craft was truly independent. To work in a factory in the employ of others was not considered to be free. Rather workers earning low wages because of the industrial revolution not only viewed themselves as slaves, but they were viewed as slaves by others. Although the wage contract was considered to be an essential element in the development of an industrial manufacturing based economy, wage labor was not considered to be the same as free labor.

Wage labor was initially viewed as a debilitating departure from the republican idea of free labor in a commercial republic because workers would not only be dependent on others, but would be so poorly paid that they could no longer be considered autonomous. Politically, workers only believed that equality was possible if each member of the polity was economically independent. Despite the language of voluntary contract, workers felt they were being compelled in a way that would only make it impossible for them to exercise their citizenship. Those receiving wages could not possibly participate in the civic life as the equals of their employers. To workers, the wage system was viewed as promoting the formation of an aristocracy.

The concept of citizenship was grounded in a system of property ownership. The republican tradition in the United States stressed the independence of individuals as the basis for citizenship. Following the Civil War, all segments of the American labor movement used the term “wage slavery” to describe the new wage labor contracts. Property owners, on the one hand, were both independent and free citizens of the republic, whereas slaves were not. This created a challenge for organized labor to make wage labor respectable. But the challenge was also to ground the essence of citizenship within a system of wage labor where property ownership would be in the labor power that workers would sell in exchange for wages, rather than in land.

Classical republicanism assumed that citizens achieved their greatest moral fulfillment from participating in a self-governing republic. A virtuous citizen was one willing to sacrifice private interests for the sake of the general community. Only when they were virtuous did they achieve liberty. This meant that one could not be an autonomous individual if one was economically dependent on others, which included being paid wages by one’s masters. Therefore, it followed that since liberty and independence were the bases for virtue, one who wasn’t independent could not qualify as a citizen.

Those who worked for wages were to be precluded from citizenship because they lacked independence and were absorbed in their narrow occupations. Only through economic independence could one be politically independent. The ideal worker only achieved independence through property ownership, because it was through property ownership that this worker would not be dependent on others.

This would, at a minimum, suggest the need to define workers’ labor as a property right. To not pay workers a liveable wage would then be classified as a civil rights violation. Workers cannot function as autonomous beings if their earnings fall short of what is needed to be self-sufficient.

Critics, of course, will argue that this runs contrary to the natural forces in the global marketplace that are driving down wages. Without resorting to public subsidies for low-wage workers, government may find it necessary to adopt a universal basic income (UBI) in order to change the nature of work, and effectively drive up wages for those choosing to work. A UBI could render work over and above the UBI voluntary, thereby making workers more choosy. To attract workers, employers could no longer engage in employer theft, but would then be forced to offer wages and other working conditions that make work, even low-skilled work, attractive.


Read the review of the just published “Wage Policy, Income Distribution, and Democratic Policy By Oren M. Levin-Waldman.



Dr. Oren M. Levin-Waldman, Ph.D., Professor at the Graduate School for Public Affairs and Administration at Metropolitan College of New York, Research Scholar at the Binzagr Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, as well as faculty member in the Milano School for International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School. Direct email to:



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