After every election, the winners and losers naturally reflect on what happened, and what is ahead. Given the worst losses for the Democrats in Congress in the last 50 years, some serious re-thinking seems called for.
President Obama is being blamed, but it seems clear that the Democratic Party, especially the Blue Dog faction, is at fault. Fortunately, that faction lost half its members. But many observers from a rather wide range of political viewpoints are emphasizing the lack of engagement, a failure to meet the needs of the people.
How did this come about? It’s complicated, but surely a significant development goes back to the 1980s and the era of the so-called Reagan Revolution, actually a Counter-Revolution. Prior to that time, the language of Rights still had currency. But the well-funded and pervasive think-tanks of the Reactionaries launched a campaign to eliminate this language, relabeling it as Entitlements. The people were thrown on the defensive, politically, educationally, and in the courts. Unfortunately, this campaign largely succeeded. Few nowadays use the language of Rights. It is time, as the late poet Thomas McGrath said, to “take back the language,” to expropriate it.
What I’d like to propose as the centerpiece of such a campaign is a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the Right to Employment.
This is not merely an abstract Utopian idea. It is deeply rooted in the American experience. Notably, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for it in his Message to Congress, January 11, 1944, in a Second Bill of Rights. Point #1 was: “The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation.” Among other Rights were the right to housing, medical care and education.
In his recent book, entitled The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever, University of Chicago professor Cass R. Sunstein reviews the background for Roosevelt’s message, and notes that Eleanor Roosevelt assisted in the campaign to have similar language in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Especially in Article 23: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”
Sunstein explains how the extension of Rights campaign emerged out of the chaos and dislocation of the Great Depression and World War II. But in the 1980s, political Reactionaries plotted to gut the language of Rights, including the various social programs of the New Deal, and even attempted to destroy Social Security. While Social Security and similar programs like Medicare have survived, even those are under attack.
There are, therefore, formidable obstacles. Changing the Constitution is a prolonged, difficult process. But change it we must, no matter how demanding it may be.
Putting the right to employment into the Constitution would mean a guarantee to all that they have a secure place in our society. It would not be subject to the whims of this or that President or Congress. It would become part of our “organic law.”
The “Establishment” and all its media agree that we must face an indefinite period of “structural unemployment” in the range of 10% of the population—actually more like 15-20%. Millions of young people have no real prospects at all. That is why so many of them did not vote in this last election.
If we have this Right in the Constitution, when you go to the Employment office, you come out with a job, if not in the private sector, then in the public one, in new forms of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) or the Works Project Administration (WPA).
The respected Chicago artist Peggy Lipschutz recalls finding work in the WPA. You got a job on the basis that you were an artist. You didn’t apply for some grant and just hope to be awarded one. Hundreds of artists all around the nation went to work in these programs.
Such a Right would at once eliminate barbarous competition among races and generations. The campaign to enact it would engage literal millions of people, on their own behalf and on behalf of all. And we would “take back” the language, the ancient language of Rights, arising from our own original Bill of Rights and extending it to meet the needs of the present day.
Preparatory to securing an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, we should investigate the various options in States and even localities, for direct citizen-sponsored Propositions and Initiatives. Sometimes it has proven easier to enact these at the State levels, before they are passed at the Federal level. But we should not lose sight of the goal: transforming not only our thinking, but our acting on the broadest national scale.