In 1912, when the labor leader Eugene V. Debs ran for President for the fourth time as the Socialist Party candidate, in his acceptance speech he spoke of a day when “the right to work shall be as inviolate as the right to breathe the breath of life.” But, in the 1940s, the term “right-to-work” was hijacked by right-wing business interests, and used to describe laws that do not actually give anyone the right to work.
The failure of the labor movement to take ownership of the term “right to work,” and to adopt an alternate term for laws that exist solely for the purpose of undermining collective bargaining is both a symptom and a cause of labor’s decline. There is an obvious parallel between the terms “right to life” and “right to work.” But, when those who want to outlaw abortion started talking about the “right to life,” defenders of reproductive freedom immediately realized that using that terminology would inevitably lead to defeat since it’s very hard to be against a right to life. But, where is the labor movement’s equivalent to the phrase “pro-choice?”
In his 1944 State of the Union address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a second bill of rights that included the “right to a useful and remunerative job.” After FDR’s speech, there was an effort to pass a full employment law that would have made it the official policy of the United States to assure sufficient employment to enable all Americans to exercise the “right to useful, remunerative, regular and full-time employment.” Needless to say, that never became law. A watered down version of the bill was enacted in 1946, and in 1978, the Humphrey-Hawkins Act declared as a national goal “the fulfillment of the right to full opportunities for useful paid employment at fair rates of compensation of all individuals able, willing, and seeking to work.” The Humphrey-Hawkins Act expired in 2000.
Fast forward to today. One of the most widely accepted explanations for Donald Trump’s victory is that there aren’t enough good jobs in most of the country. During the campaign, at one point, by including students, retirees, the severely disabled, and parents caring for small children, Trump even claimed there were 92 million jobless Americans. While the actual number who want a job is much smaller, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9.5% of the workforce is either unemployed or underemployed. Regardless of whether Trump has a credible plan to create large numbers of good jobs, at least he spoke to people’s hopes. If the Democrats want to win back the Trump voters who had previously voted Democratic, it’s time they started pressing for a real right to work at a job that pays a fair wage.