“Employment: A Human Right” – A Partial Transcript

On February 5, 2014, Congresspersons John Conyers Jr. and Frederica Wilson, co-chairs of the newly formed, first ever Congressional Full Employment Caucus hosted a forum on “Employment: A Human Right.” The forum was moderated by Christina Bellantoni, Roll Call Editor-in-Chief. A video of the forum is available for viewing at http://www.dems.gov/photos-videos/. At 38:09, Bellantoni asks, “Can access to decent jobs really be a human right?” Following are the responses from the panel, which consisted of Phillip Harvey, Lawrence Mishel, Thea Lee, Dean Baker, and John Cavanagh.

Harvey: Yes, yes. The FDR Administration proposed “employment assurance.” How does the federal government guarantee it? By doing whatever it can to stimulate private sector employment, but at the end of the day, standing ready to provide jobs for any workers for whom jobs don’t exist in the regular labor marker. It’s cheap. It’s effective. And it can be done in a way that is non-inflationary.

Mishel: Let me paint it into an even broader picture. What’s a human right and what comes with being a citizen, like the right to vote, is something that has expanded and it expands through political struggle. So what is a right is about what you can take. I think this is a story about the economy. It’s really important for people to understand that over the last 30 years there has been a massive redistribution of income, power, and wealth. That’s why most families did not really benefit much from the economic growth over that period. I can guarantee you that over the next 30 years there will be substantial growth of income and wealth. What lays before us is whether we are going to have a political struggle and economic policies that assure that people have jobs, good jobs, and economic security at work and in retirement. So it’s only a matter of what you can take.

Lee: What could be a more fundamental human right than employment, because it is essential to almost everything else that most people need in their lives, given that most of us aren’t born with a trust fund or a guarantee from the government. If you want to eat, if you want to feed your children, if you want education for your children, you want health care, all of those things come from having a good job. I think the United Nations has recognized with economic and social rights employment is absolutely essential. Even with the United States, it’s not really an outlandish idea. The Humphrey-Hawkins Act discussed before is part of US law where we have established full employment as a goal of public policy. But the problem is we’ve let that lapse. We’ve ignored that this is something that exists in our law. We have over time allowed fighting inflation to be a more important goal than creating employment.

Baker: I would chime in there. We really have gone way backwards. If you go back to the late 60s, we had the unemployment rate under 4% in 1968-69, which was of course the peak year of the minimum wage, which is not entirely accidental in the sense that it was politics that was driving both. But I mean the obsession with inflation. And. I should point out that part of the story is that we really do let much of this get away in the form of euphemisms. I remember back in the 1990s when Greenspan was raising interest rates deliberately to slow the economy and keep people from getting jobs. That was what he was doing. And it was reported in the media that we don’t want the economy to “overheat.” And I’m sure the vast majority of people listening to it were thinking, “Well yes, we don’t want the stew to overheat.” No one understood that what he was doing was keeping people from getting work, and that was what he was doing. At the very least we need to get some honest discussion of this.

Cavanagh: I agree with all that and to just add one more thing. I think there’s a story that we all in this room need to be able to tell and Congressman Conyers needs to be able to tell. To the question, can we make decent employment a right again? It’s to say, “Yes, because we know how to do it because we’ve done it before.” The story is simply the story of our country from 1933 to about 1975, when we went from one of the most unequal countries in the world with among the highest unemployment rates to one of the most equal as Dean has said with one of the lowest unemployment rates. How did we do it? It was as Larry said, through a huge struggle, led at that time by a big strong unified labor movement, which said, one, this is wrong, convinced the majority of the people that the state that we were in was wrong. It was easier in a Great Depression, but we’re still in what many of us feel is a Great Recession now. And it was done, remember under the 50s, under a Republican President, Eisenhower, the top marginal tax rate was 91%. There was a consensus through struggle to tax the 1% and big corporations and use it to pay for massive job creation bills like the GI Bill of Rights. We did it. We can do it again. Clearly we have new challenges. We’re in a more global economy. We have the challenges of climate. But we can do it. I will just mention one date here. On April 28 there will be a big coming together with the trade union movement and its allies to demand a $15 an hour minimum wage. It will be a new set of allies that are fighting for power. But as Larry says, it’s not going to just come. It will be through a struggle of those forces against those who don’t want to give in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.