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Hobby Lobby Wages Don’t Excuse Undermining Workers Rights

Amy Traub

Employers should pay their workers enough to live on and support their families.

My colleagues and I at Demos have joined our fellow advocates and researchers in making the point repeatedly: delving deeply into the cases of retail workers (in the industry generally  and at Walmart  specifically), fast food employees, and people employed by companies that do business with the federal government. We’ve argued for raising the minimum wage at the federal, state, and local levels, and have cheered on private companies that voluntarily decided to raise base worker pay, including the Gap,  Ikea, and – as Ross Douthat pointed out in his column in the Sunday New York Times  – Hobby Lobby. Simply put, when all workers are paid enough to support themselves, the economy is stronger, our families and communities are stronger, and businesses themselves benefit from increased worker morale and productivity, reduced absenteeism, and greater employee retention.

It was in this context that blogger Brenden Timpe wrote on our blog last year in praise of Hobby Lobby’s wage hike. Reading Timpe’s post, Douthat sees a clash between religious liberty and cultural liberalism. The political left, he argues, is doing itself a disservice by critiquing the religious choices of organizations, like church-run soup kitchens, that otherwise serve goals we support. “Insist that for legal purposes there’s no such thing as a religiously motivated business," he argues, "and you will get fewer religiously motivated business owners" who will be motivated by their values to raise wages.

In other words, Douthat maintains that if progressives like it when religiously motivated employers pay their workers well, we should look the other way on other policies. In Hobby Lobby’s case, this includes advancing a legal principle that will undermine the rights of workers across the country, and undercut government’s ability to create systems that support workers, whether it comes to birth control or any other idea that might offend an employer’s religious beliefs. That’s hardly an acceptable compromise.

As Demos President Heather McGhee points out, “corporations are creations of the state and they must serve the public interest. What is especially dangerous about the Hobby Lobby decision is that it continues to advance the fallacy of corporate personhood and makes the corporate entity supreme over our democratic decision-making about what’s in the public interest -- in this case affordable health care for women and their partners.”

It’s a positive thing when employers -- motivated by religious values, pragmatic business concerns, or any other consideration – choose to go beyond the floor set by the law to lift up their workers. But we’d be better off with more strong employee protections and workers’ rights so we don’t need to rely on the whims of corporate leaders who choose which rights and benefits to bestow.