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Monday, April 4, 2016

The Wages of the Laborers

“Well, fi’ cents a box ain’t much, but a fella can eat.”

 “Fi’ cents?” the wizened man cried. “Fi’ cents! They payin’ you fi’ cents?”

 “Sure. We made a buck an’ a half.”

 A heavy silence fell in the tent. Casey stared out the entrance, into the dark night. “Lookie, Tom,” he said at last. “We come to work there. They says it’s gonna be fi’ cents. They was a hell of a lot of us. We got there an’ they says they’re payin’ two an’ a half cents. A fella can’t even eat on that, an’ if he got kids – So we says we won’t take it. So they druv us off. An’ all the cops in the worl’ come down on us. Now they’re payin’ you five. When they bust this here strike – ya think they’ll pay five?”

 “I dunno,” Tom said. “Payin’ five now.” (Steinbeck 522)

In a capitalist system employers seek to pay employees as little as possible so as to keep as much profit as possible. They would, if were not against the law, pay less than the minimum wage; they’d eliminate the minimum wage and let competition among workers drive wages down as far as possible – after all, there’s always someone desperate enough to work, even for less, even for less than he can live on.

“Try an’ tell ‘em, Tom. They’ll get two an’ a half, jus’ the minute were gone. You know what two an’ a half is-that’s one ton of peaches picked and carried for a dollar.” He dropped his head. “No – you can’t do it. You can’t get your food for that. Can’t eat for that.” (523)

But is it ethical? Is it moral? Is it Just? To value profit over people, to pay less than a livable wage?

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you. (James 5: 1 – 6 RSV)

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York, NY: Penguin Books. 1939. Print.

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