A Call for an Economic Bill of Rights for the 21st Century

by Gregory N. Heires

fdrNearly 70 years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed that everyone has the right to a job with decent wage, his message continues to ring true as evidenced by a recent conference at Columbia University on full employment.

The economy of the 21st century remains mired in what seems to be an inescapable funk of unemployment and poorly paying jobs.

The Bush years flew by with a net jobs growth of virtually zero.

Our current employment outlook remains ugly:

• In September, unemployment was 7.3 percent, historically high for a period of recovery,

• Job growth was just 140,000 that month, significantly below what’s needed for a strong recovery,

• Wages have been flat for five years,

• A recent Wells Fargo survey found more than a third of Americans say they will have to work into their 80s because they won’t be able to afford to retire, and

• The labor participation rate—the percentage of people over 16 who either have a job or are seriously looking for one—fell to its lowest rate in 35 years in August.

Employment and Human Rights

Congressman John Conyers

Congressman John Conyers

“Full employment must be at the top of our political agenda,” said U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-MI), whose House Resolution 1000 calls for a Wall Street transactions tax to fund jobs for 2.5 million to 4 million unemployed Americans. The New Deal-like program would aim to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure and strengthen communities.

“Good-paying jobs must be viewed as a human right,” Conyers said.

Conyers spoke at a gathering at Columbia University in New York City on Oct. 18 of nearly 200 scholars and activists to commemorate FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights, which Roosevelt included in his 1944 State of the Union Address.

FDR considered the right to a job as the “paramount right.” The Economic Bill of Rights, which unfortunately never became law, called for guaranteed employment at a living wage, housing, medical care, education and old age security.

“We have never achieved the right to employment for all,” said Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, professor emerita of social policy at Adelphi University, a co-chair of The Columbia University Seminar on Full Employment, Social Welfare and Equity, which sponsored the conference to mark its 25th anniversary. Her comment underscored how reaching full unemployment would require building a social movement that questions the prevailing ideology and political winds of our society.

Direct Employment Programs

The stubbornness of unemployment following the most recent recession has led to a debate among economists over the acceptable level of joblessness, which was 5 percent before the downturn. The persistence of unemployment and perceived long-term structural barriers to improvement have led economists, Federal Reserve Bank officials and politicians to suggest that the acceptable rate should be higher.

But full employment advocates believe otherwise.

For instance, the Jobs for All Coalition, a sponsor of the conference, does not emphasize an unemployment rate as a target but believes the goal should be to ensure jobs for everyone who wants one. Full employment by that definition would be significantly below 5 percent.

Philip Harvey, a professor of law and economics at Rutgers University, said in an interview that unemployment would be negligible if the government had a comprehensive jobs program based on a philosophy that regarded the right to work as a matter of dignity.

Harvey proposes eliminating involuntary unemployment by establishing trust funds to allow state and local governments to create temporary public- sector jobs for the unemployed. The unemployment rate could be lowered by 3 percent if 4.5 million jobs were created through such trust funds, according to Harvey.

The federal government adopted direct employment programs during Great Depression (the Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration). High unemployment in the 1970s led the U.S. Congress to create jobs through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act.

“A federal job guarantee would not only restore dignity but also erode barriers to entry to the labor force, eliminating the threat of unemployment for all,” said Derrick Hamilton, associate professor of economics and urban policy at the Milano Graduate School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, part of The New School in New York City.

Hamilton proposes creating a National Investment Employment Corps that would support 15 million jobs with salaries ranging from $20,00 to $80,000. This job assurance (as opposed to insurance) program would significantly reduce anti-poverty expenditures.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, suggested that the Federal Reserve Bank do more to encourage job creation, though he sees little hope that addressing unemployment would ever be as big a priority for the Fed as controlling inflation.

Dean Baker

Dean Baker

Baker also expressed support for a federal jobs sharing program similar to that of Germany’s. But he noted that states are failing to tap into federal funds available for that purpose. (Under work sharing, the government picks up a portion of the lost wages of workers whose hours are cut during a recession. The subsidy allows firms to reduce their payroll without laying off workers.)

For the 21st century, FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights would need to be updated to address the declining power of unions, which have nearly disappeared in the private sector. Along with the drop in the value of the minimum wage, globalization and labor-saving technology, the decline in union representation explains the erosion of wages in recent decades.

Sheila D. Collins, professor emerita of political science at Williams Paterson University, said FDR was deeply committed to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment.

But she said that addressing environmental degradation today requires more far-reaching policies than during the New Deal years. The struggle for economic rights must be coupled with policies that promote a safe and sustainable environment on which all economic activity depends, according to Collins, who is a co-chair of the Columbia University seminar group.

Peter Marcuse, professor emeritus of urban planning at Columbia University, predicted that any full-blown mobilization by full-employment advocates would encounter strong opposition.

“I think we need to recognize that conflict is inevitable,” Marcuse said. “High unemployment lowers wages. It’s in an employer’s interest to cut wages and to cut jobs.”

A new morality

So, what are the political and other challenges facing a full unemployment movement?

Helen Lachs Ginsburg, professor emerita of economics, Brooklyn College, a co-chair of the Columbia seminar, said we need a new morality, one that values the dignity of work and doesn’t demonize the downtrodden who are jobless.

“We have to acknowledge that the current system is not just,” said William Quigley, professor of law at Loyola University, who, like Conyers, said the right to a job should be regarded as a human right.

Quigley cited Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” He also recalled that King said, “We need a radical redistribution of economic and political power…”

“The fact if that austerity or humanity is the question,” said Michael Lighty, director of public policy of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United.

The nurses union is campaigning for a “Robin Hood tax” that calls for a .5 percent tax on stock transactions. The tax could bring in more than $300 billion a year in extra revenue.

“This is a tax on the wealthy,” Lighty said. “We know a better world is possible and how to pay for it.”

Christopher Policano, communications director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that progressives don’t need to rely only on the mainstream media to try to reshape public debate. By tapping into social media, they can create a powerful “echo chamber” about their own agenda.

Occupy Wall Street (which made inequality part of the country’s political discourse), the AFL-CIO’s recent decision to expand its reach outside the formal labor movement and the media opening provided by MSNBC together are signs that the message of full-employment and economic rights advocates can resonate in the country, according to Policano.

Gary Dorrien, Reinhold Niebuhr professor of social Ethics at the Union Theological Seminary, said the progressive religious community would be key participants in a movement that fights for good jobs.

“Neo-liberalism needs to be discredited and a stake driven in its heart,” said Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation.

Gregory N. Heires is senior associate editor at Public Employee Press, the official publication of District Council 37, which represents 120,000 municipal workers and 50,000 retirees in New York City.  He blogs at The New Crossroads.

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