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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Protest Needed to Enforce Full Employment Laws

Jeanne Mirer, president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. and Marjorie Cohn, immediate past president of the National Lawyers Guild, have a post up at Op-Ed News, “Lost in the Debt Ceiling Debate: The Legal Duty to Create Jobs” addressing the federal government’s failure to comply with existing job-creation legislation.
Mirer and Cohn focuse primarily on The Employment Act of 1946 and the Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978, noting also mandates for job-creation in 1977 reforms requiring the Federal Reserve to leverage monetary policy to promote maximum employment. They add that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets a global standard of employment as an important right, which, not incidentally, some major industrialized nations have actually tried to honor.
The authors’ review of the two jobs acts provides a timely reminder of the moral imperative that faces every great democracy, the responsibility to take action to help insure that every family has at least one breadwinner who earns a living wage:

The first full employment law in the United States was passed in 1946. It required the country to make its goal one of full employment…With the Keynesian consensus that government spending was necessary to stimulate the economy and the depression still fresh in the nation’s mind, this legislation contained a firm statement that full employment was the policy of the country.
As originally written, the bill required the federal government do everything in its authority to achieve full employment, which was established as a right guaranteed to the American people. Pushback by conservative business interests, however, watered down the bill. While it created the Council of Economic Advisers to the President and the Joint Economic Committee as a Congressional standing committee to advise the government on economic policy, the guarantee of full employment was removed from the bill.
In the aftermath of the rise in unemployment which followed the “oil crisis” of 1975, Congress addressed the weaknesses of the 1946 act through the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978. The purpose of this bill as described in its title is:
“An Act to translate into practical reality the right of all Americans who are able, willing, and seeking to work to full opportunity for useful paid employment at fair rates of compensation; to assert the responsibility of the Federal Government to use all practicable programs and policies to promote full employment, production, and real income, balanced growth, adequate productivity growth, proper attention to national priorities.”
The Act sets goals for the President. By 1983, unemployment rates should be not more than 3% for persons age 20 or over and not more than 4% for persons age 16 or over, and inflation rates should not be over 4%. By 1988, inflation rates should be 0%. The Act allows Congress to revise these goals over time.
If private enterprise appears not to be meeting these goals, the Act expressly calls for the government to create a “reservoir of public employment.” These jobs are required to be in the lower ranges of skill and pay to minimize competition with the private sector.
The Act directly prohibits discrimination on account of gender, religion, race, age or national origin in any program created under the Act. Humphey-Hawkins has not been repealed. Both the language and the spirit of this law require the government to bring unemployment down to 3% from over 9%…

This legislation only requires the federal government to take action. The private sector, which employs 85+ percent of the labor force, would be indirectly influenced by monetary policy, but would not be required to do any hiring. Still, full enforcement of existing legislation could substantially reduce unemployment by putting millions of jobless Americans to work in public service projects rebuilding our tattered infrastructure.
The ’46 and ’78 full employment laws have been winked at and shrugged off by elected officials for decades as merely symbolic statutes, despite the fact that they actually do require the President, Congress and the Fed to do specific things to create jobs.
Mirer and Cohn point out that Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has introduced “The Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act” (HR 870), to fund job-training and job-creation programs, funded by taxes on financial transactions. But the bill has no chance as long as Republicans control the House.
The authors urge President Obama to demand that the Fed “…use all the tools relating to controlling the money supply…to create the funds called for by HR 870, and to start putting people back to work through direct funding of a reservoir of public jobs as Humphrey-Hawkins mandates.” Imagine the political donnybrook that would ensue following such action, legal though it apparently would be. It’s an interesting scenario that needs some fleshing out.
The best hope for full employment remains electing strong Democratic majorities to both houses of congress, while retaining the presidency. Under this scenario, full enforcement of the ’46 and ’78 employment acts is certainly doable. But it’s a very tough challenge, given the Republican edge in Senate races next year.
There are signs that the public is tiring of the tea party obstruction of government, and therefore hope that at least some Republicans may have to move toward the center to survive. It’s possible they could be influenced by energetic protest and lobbying campaigns by their constituents.
Like other groups across the political spectrum, we progressives are very good at blaming elected officials when they don’t follow through on their reform promises. But too many progressive Dems fail to realize that finger-pointing, while necessary, is only part of our responsibility. If we really want to see significant progressive change, especially full employment, we simply must escalate our protest activities to compel our elected and government officials to act.
At a white house meeting, FDR reportedly told the great African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph “Make me do it” in response to Randolph’s appeal for racial justice and economic reform. Roosevelt was not being a smart ass; He was underscoring an important law of politics, that elected officials need protest to galvanize them to act, and progressive politicians welcome it because it provides cover, as well as encouragement.
Regarding protest leadership, we have a great role model, whose 30+ foot stone image will be unveiled not far from the Lincoln, Jefferson and FDR Memorials on the National Mall in the capitol August 28th. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial will not only honor the historic contributions of a great African American leader; It will also inspire — and challenge — coming generations of all races to emulate his strategy of militant but dignified nonviolent protest to achieve social and economic justice.
Let’s not forget that the Great March on Washington MLK and Randolph lead in 1963 was not only about racial justice. The twin goals were “Jobs and Freedom,” a challenge that echoes with prophetic relevance for our times. It was FDR who said “make me do it,” and MLK showed us the way, not only with one demonstration, but with a sustained commitment to mass protest. Now let’s make them do it.

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