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A Second Bill of Rights would restore economic democracy

Rochester Business Journal
August 31, 2012

On Aug. 11, union members, non-union workers and our allies from across the country joined together in Philadelphia to redirect the public debate of this election season toward what Americans really need-an investment and focus on our country and our people. The failed policies of more than a generation, which have benefited mostly the superwealthy, are destroying the American dream and the foundation of a strong economy.

The rally kicked off the Workers Stand for America campaign, with tens of thousands of people endorsing a Second Bill of Rights that sets forth principles to guide government, business leaders, organizations and individuals toward a common goal of a just and fair society. The Second Bill of Rights includes the rights to full employment and a living wage, goals well within our reach if the private and public sectors invest in America's infrastructure, promote industrial development and make job creation a top policy priority.

We also are demanding full participation in the electoral process. Recent initiatives to deny large groups of citizens the right to vote are immoral, plain and simple. At a time when our courts have empowered money over people, any attempt to reduce the rolls of eligible voters is an assault on our democracy and an affront to our nation's struggle against voting restrictions based on property ownership, race, religion and gender. Allegations of voter fraud were investigated for years under President George W. Bush with nothing to show for it. Voter apathy, due to the fewer wealthy voices drowning out the voices of the many, is the real voter problem.

America's Second Bill of Rights includes a right to a voice at work-to bargain collectively for improved wages, benefits and working conditions-since workers have been denied the freedom of association in the workplace that is required by the Bill of Rights. For a generation, most of the wealth created by increasing worker productivity has gone to the wealthiest few, destroying the post-war social compact.

We also include in the Second Bill of Rights a right to a good education, believing that this is a foundation of our democracy. A high-quality education is vital to our competitive position in the world economy and the principal means by which Americans empower themselves to participate in our nation's economic and political systems. Good, affordable education should be available to all from prekindergarten to college, including apprenticeships and skills training to prepare for work.

Lastly, America's Second Bill of Rights demands a secure and healthy future, with a baseline level of health care, unemployment insurance and retirement security. The social compact that served our nation well for many decades has been badly eroded. We call on government and private industry together to confront the issues of access to health care, weakening of unemployment coverage and inadequate pensions that undermine the ability to retire in dignity, even as Social Security and Medicare are under strain and threatened with cutbacks.

These petitions supporting America's Second Bill of Rights will be delivered to both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Those who know their presidential history recognize that labor's push for a Second Bill of Rights is a renewal, with some updating, of Franklin D. Roosevelt's call for a Second Bill of Rights in his State of the Union message of 1944. As FDR could see World War II coming to its conclusion, he reminded the public of the causes of the war, declaring, "We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ... People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made."

FDR called for moving forward toward the goals of decent jobs with living wages, an economy free from unfair competition and unfair trade, free from monopolies at home or abroad. He proclaimed a right to a decent home, medical care, a good education and protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.

He also warned of a domestic reaction like that which followed World War I. "If history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called 'normalcy' of the 1920s, then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of fascism here at home." We are seeing this now in the eurozone as austerity, with Germany calling the shots, has increased unemployment and is shredding the safety net. Violent anarchists on the left and violent Nazi-type hate groups on the right are on the rise. More than one expert has stated that if the austerity is not loosened, we will see Germany destroying Europe for the third time in a century.

Studies now show that American working people have lost about 40 percent of their wealth during this Great Recession, with African Americans and people of other minorities losing closer to 60 percent of their assets. The assets of most working people include little more than their homes and small 401(k) accounts, and the financial sector bears a heavy responsibility for the damage caused by its malfeasance. As someone who was a teenager when the Civil Rights Act became law, now seeing almost all the economic progress made by Americans of color over four decades wiped out, I view this as a devastating development for all Americans.

I am often asked to speak on labor and economic justice issues to many unions, community and political groups, advocacy groups and classes at local colleges. As the quotes from FDR's 1944 speech show, much of labor's Second Bill of Rights is not new territory; calls for implementing such reforms certainly predate FDR. In the past year I have often heard disappointment with the lack of progress on these issues as promised in 2008 by Barack Obama, and I agree with some of these criticisms and have said so in print. For the most part, however, it is not true that the president and the Democrats had control of Congress in 2009, not with the filibuster rule. The Democrats were several votes short of a filibuster-proof Senate majority after the 2008 elections. I lobbied hard on changing the filibuster rule in late 2008 and in late 2010.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand helped lead the fight on the filibuster change when the rules were set in the new Congress in January 2009. The effort fell seven votes short of the 51 needed to change the rules, mainly because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was against it, as was our senior senator, Chuck Schumer. Reid has now apologized publicly, saying he was wrong and the filibuster has allowed 41 senators, representing states with about one-third of U.S. population, to stop everything.

According to Reid's public statement, the filibuster has been used more than 360 times by Senate Republicans to stop all attempts to accelerate economic recovery. In just the last few weeks, we have seen the filibuster prevent the majority from passing the Disclose Act and the American Jobs Act. The Disclose Act would require Citizens United electioneering groups to identify the people who give more than $10,000 for political ads and campaign funding. The American Jobs Act would eliminate tax breaks for creating a job offshore or moving a job offshore, a proposal supported by a majority of Americans in both parties.

Majorities of voters in both parties also support ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, halting the outsourcing of jobs, stopping China's unfair trade practices and eliminating tax subsidies for big oil. But none of that will happen with this Tea Party Congress, a Congress with the lowest approval rating ever measured. A recent survey had the Tea Party Congress at 9 percent approval, below oil companies, banksters, CEOs and even Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Congress' approval rating is higher than only Fidel Castro's 7 percent.

It is time to demand a Congress that addresses a Second Bill of Rights for America.

James Bertolone is president of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also is president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 215.

What You're Saying 

Miguel Detonacciones at 10:12:24 PM on 9/7/2012
Dear James,

I have encountered another group that has drafted a "second bill of rights" for the U. S. Constitution, to establish "political-economic democracy". The group is called the Equitist Advocacy Group, and their website is at Here is the li...  Read More >

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