If Everybody Had Work

Imagine the United States as a utopia where everyone had the right to a decent job at decent pay.It's a right many would consider essential to realizing the Constitution's promise to "establish justice" and to "promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty." Yet it's a right that has never been granted constitutional status.Congress did pass bills -- in 1946 and again in 1978 -- calling for "full employment" programs providing jobs for all Americans who were able and willing to work. But the legislation was filled with loopholes and has been virtually ignored, despite heavy pressure from the AFL-CIO.Some union leaders feel the only answer is a constitutional amendment, and that's what they're going after in a campaign led by the newly-formed Labor Party, which they launched independently of the AFL-CIO.The amendment says simply, "every person shall have the right to a job and to receive a living wage for their work." Jobs could be in public or private employment, and the wage would be $10 initially, to be adjusted for inflation in the future.The need for such a measure is glaringly obvious. Although the official unemployment rate has dipped below 5 percent overall in recent months, it is close to twice that when factoring in the working-age men in prison or on parole, as it is for African Americans and Latinos.What's more, the official tally does not include 5 to 6 million who have given up looking for work or have been able to find only part-time or temporary work.More than half the jobless do not even get unemployment benefits -- and those who do get payments averaging a third of their previous earnings, for no more than 26 weeks.And some 13 million people with jobs are barely surviving at pay rates at -- or illegally below -- the federal minimum wage of $4.75 an hour. Several million others make just a few dollars more.Some of these workers are poor enough to qualify for food stamps and other government aid, others have joined the ever-rising population of homeless. They won't do much better when the minimum increases 40 cents in September.The country has the resources to guarantee jobs at decent wages to all those Americans. Consider, for example, that the average compensation of chief executive officers of major corporations has soared to almost $6 million a year -- while profits of the leading 500 corporations rose a record 23 percent in 1996.Even Labor Party activists concede that getting a constitutional guarantee of decent jobs will be a difficult task, but they see signs that the situation might be improving. Congress approved an increase in the minimum wage last year for the first time in five years, and in a number of cases, labor and community activists have succeeded in getting state and municipal governments to set minimums above the federal standards.So far, a half dozen states have set higher rates for all workers than the federal minimum, and more than 20 cities have enacted ordinances requiring anyone with a contract to do business with the city to pay their employees more than the federal minimum.Rebuilding, repairing, and expanding our seriously deteriorated infrastructure would by itself provide more than enough jobs and do wonders for the economy. The task now is to convince people to demand jobs for all.If nothing else, the campaign for a constitutional amendment could prompt widespread debate on an extremely important issue, help forge alliances among community and union groups and unaffiliated workers -- and act as an important organizing tool for the new Labor Party in its bid to become an effective third party.


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