‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’ Demands $15 an Hour

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This post first appeared at Campaign for America’s Future.

FDR signs social security act in 1935

Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, August 14, 1935. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

Knowing that “necessitous men are not free men,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a New Deal in 1933 that rallied Americans to not only fight the Great Depression, but also to combat poverty, reduce inequality and enhance American democratic life. Together, President and People subjected the banks and national commerce to government supervision, provided jobs for the jobless and refurbished the nation’s infrastructure and environment. Moreover, right from the start FDR and his New Dealers in the Cabinet and Congress set out to establish a minimum wage and empower workers to organize unions.

When the majority of Americans called for further action, FDR and his allies launched a Second New Deal in 1935 that increased corporate regulation and taxes, expanded public works and employment, created a social security system and bolstered workers’ capacities to secure industrial democracy in their workplaces.

All of this enabled Americans to not only confront the Depression, but also go on to win the Second World War and turn the United States into the strongest and most prosperous nation in history.

How many times must we say it? We need to do what FDR and our parents and grandparents did. We need to launch a new New Deal. We need to regulate and tax capital, refurbish the national infrastructure and environment, and empower workers to cultivate economic democracy and reduce inequality. But to do all of that we need to expand our already-resurgent progressive populist movement in favor of a new politics in 2016.

For starters, we need to press President Obama and Congress to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. At the least we must push the president and aspiring Democratic candidates to “take a note” from FDR and set a progressive-populist political agenda for the upcoming campaigns.

An “Economic Declaration of Rights”

Declaring that “economic laws are not made by nature [but] by human beings,” Roosevelt told his fellow citizens in the presidential campaign of 1932 that it was time for a new “economic declaration of rights” to renew the nation’s democratic promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – the promise proclaimed by the Founders in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. As FDR put it: “Every man has a right to life; and this means he also has a right to make a comfortable living… Our government…owes to everyone an avenue to possess himself of a portion of [America’s] plenty sufficient for his needs through his work.”

And with good reason, Americans would elect him to the presidency four times.

Defeating Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt and his New Dealers quickly secured from Congress an extraordinary series of relief, recovery and reconstruction initiatives. They made many a terrible and tragic mistake, but they continually empowered working people. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (NIRA) set up Labor and Consumer Advisory Boards, licensed workers to organize unions, and established the first national minimum wage. But as Roosevelt saw it, a minimum wage was not enough. He looked forward to setting a “living wage.” In fact, on signing the Act he said: “no business which depends for its existence on paying less than living wages has any right to continue in this country.” And he meant it – which was one of the reasons corporate bosses hated him.

Indeed, Roosevelt – who said he welcomed the hatred of the 1 percent (the “economic royalists”) – believed in workers’ rights to organize and he knew that economic recovery and growth depended on raising workers’ purchasing power. When big business resisted workers’ organizing efforts, FDR showed his support for the cause of labor.

In 1934 he came to Green Bay, Wisconsin – just 60 miles north of the town of Kohler, where workers had gone out on strike against the Kohler Corporation – and there he spoke of how generations of working people had had to fight for their rights and were continuing to do so. And in 1935 he put his words into action and signed into law the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA – aka the “Wagner Act” for its great author Senator Robert Wagner) – which placed the federal government solidly behind the struggle for union representation and collective bargaining. The battles for industrial democracy continued. But workers were now backed in their efforts by the federal government.

Speaking at the dedication of a war memorial in St. Louis in 1936, FDR not only put into words the purpose of the New Deal and the struggles underway. He also redefined American patriotism for a generation: “A true patriotism urges us to build an even more substantial America where the good things of life may be shared by more of us, where the social injustices will not be encouraged to flourish.”

Even when conservative Republicans and reactionary Southern Democrats had enough combined seats in Congress to block or water down progressive legislative initiatives, FDR and his congressional allies fought to enact laws that would raise workers’ wages and guarantee their rights. And in 1938, despite corporate and conservative opposition, they secured passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which abolished child labor and established both a minimum wage and overtime pay for at least one in four American workers.

Even then, however, President Roosevelt did not stop. He regularly called for expanding Social Security and for enacting programs to assure housing and healthcare coverage to all Americans. Most dramatically, in January 1941 – less than a year before their entry into World War II – he articulated Americans’ finest aspirations in a vision, or promise, of four fundamental freedoms: “Freedom of speech and expression, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear.” And when Americans’ “rendezvous with destiny” came, FDR – for all his terrible faults and failings on race – made sure to work with labor to advance both the war effort and workers’ rights and needs.

Working People Gained Ground

Though both the AFL and the CIO had issued “no strike pledges” in the wake of Pearl Harbor, he knew he too had to act to tame capital and sustain industrial peace. Scrapping prewar arrangements, he set up the National War Labor Board (NWLB) in January 1942 and accorded equal representation at all levels of its operations to both business and labor. Assigned responsibility for settling war-industry disputes and setting war-industry wages, the NWLB not only announced the “Little Steel Formula,” which granted labor a 15 percent cost-of-living increase to cover the rate of inflation since January 1941 and effectively set a pattern for all industries.

It also announced a “Maintenance of Membership” policy whereby unions that honored the “no strike pledge” would automatically enroll new workers as members for the duration of their existing contracts, unless those workers themselves opted out in their first two weeks on the job. Propelled by the Maintenance of Membership rules in the war industries and organizing campaigns elsewhere, unions would expand their ranks during the war from 10 million to 15 million – with women’s memberships increasing from 800,000 to three million.

Notably, while corporate profits would increase during the war, class inequalities would actually decrease due to the administration’s taxation and wage-and-price-control policies as well as to the concerted efforts of the expanding labor and consumer movements. While the top fifth of family incomes would grow by 20 percent, those below them grew even faster, the bottom two-fifths by more than 60 percent. As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein has noted: “Working people ate better and worried less… infant mortality declined by more than one-third…[and] life expectancy surged ahead by three years for whites and by five for African Americans.”

FDR’s Appeal to Congress

Even as America was fighting Fascism and Imperialism in the name of the Four Freedoms, corporate capitalists and conservatives resisted FDR’s pro-labor initiatives – compelling workers to stage many a walk-out in protest at management practices. But Roosevelt continued to project the promise of the Four Freedoms. And in January 1944 – when surveys revealed that Americans wanted to pursue a host of grand social- and industrial-democratic initiatives at war’s end – the president went before Congress and called for enactment of an “economic bill of rights” that would assure all Americans “an American standard of living higher than ever before known.”

Recalling the arguments he made in 1932, Roosevelt said: “This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights… They were our rights to life and liberty. As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy expanded – these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” But he continued: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’”

Evoking Jefferson, the Founders and Lincoln, he contended that “In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident,” and “We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.” This Second Bill of Rights included:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

In sum, he stated: “All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.”

As much as Americans wanted it, the Second Bill of Rights was not enacted. But FDR did secure – with the support, ironically enough, of the ever-conservative American Legion – a decidedly social-democratic GI Bill to enable millions of veterans to rebuild themselves and America.

The Fight Continues

The legacy of the FDR years lived on… A generation – the Greatest Generation – did not give up what it had accomplished. They fully embraced Social Security and in the course of the immediate postwar years, and then the Great Society campaigns of the 1960s, they expanded it both to cover those previously excluded and to include healthcare for the elderly and poor (Medicare and Medicaid). And even though Republicans and Southern Democrats severely hamstrung labor’s capacity to organize by passing the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act (which allowed states to enact right to work laws), unions continued to expand and in the 1960s and early 1970s public employee unionism dramatically took off.

Taxes were high. Wages grew. The economy boomed. Civic action and high voter turnout were the norm. Public investments and progressive public policies made for a better America. And both inequality and poverty decreased.

Let’s not get nostalgic… After 40 years of class war from above, Reaganomics and austerity, we have much to do to renew the Fight for the Four Freedoms.

Recalling FDR, let’s remind our fellow citizens that “economic laws are not made by nature [but] by human beings” – that “no business which depends for its existence on paying less than living wages has any right to continue in this country” – and that “A true patriotism urges us to build an even more substantial America where the good things of life may be shared by more of us, where the social injustices will not be encouraged to flourish.” And then let’s start making history by winning the fight for $15.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster), Take Hold of Our History: Make America Radical Again (Zero Press) and FDR on Democracy The Greatest Speeches and Writings of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt . Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye
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