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On Freedom

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Mike Konczal and Nell Abernathy have a call to arms, urging the Democratic Party to embrace economic freedom as a core strategy. They identify three freedoms, as opposed to FDR’s 4. There is Freedom From Poverty, Freedom For Workers, and Freedom From Corporate Power. I certainly agree and I hope my work on labor rights, federally guaranteed employment, and global trade makes a small contribution to these debates. An excerpt:

Rallying around the banner of expanding “freedom,” Democrats must make full and secure employment an explicit goal and governing strategy, thus expanding the alternatives available to workers and increasing worker leverage. Full employment has historically been key to increasing worker bargaining power and reducing structural barriers. A jobs agenda must include policies that rein in the business trends restraining corporate investment and new business starts — namely, to create robust private sector job growth, Democrats must push financial reform and policies that encourage competition. Beyond this, Democrats must support the laws and institutions that will empower workers to advocate for themselves and negotiate compensation and conditions from an equal position of power.

What does this entail in practice? The compass should point towards programs that broaden the availability and security of work. That includes monetary policy and fiscal policy that provide a high-pressure economy that raises wages and begins to close racial wage gaps. A robust plan to tackle several of our pressing public challenges — namely outdated physical infrastructure and an underpaid care economy — would generate millions of new low- and high-skilled jobs. Finally, Democrats should champion public employment, which has been an effective tool in combating employment discrimination. Affirmative action policies in direct public employment and in federal contracting policies helped to build a black middle class from 1965 to 1980.

Democrats must support the laws and institutions that will empower workers to advocate for themselves and negotiate compensation and conditions from a position of equal power. This includes better enforcement of existing labor laws. But it also means adapting labor laws to support bargaining efforts in the disaggregated workplaces of the 21st century. The decline of unionization in the U.S. has directly led to declining wages and less secure work. And while employers often argue that global trade renders unionization a competitive disadvantage, other export leaders have maintained highly unionized workforces.

In the fissured workplace dominated by subcontracted and temporary employment, it can be a challenge for workers to even identify the employer with which to bargain. New models would allow workers to more effectively bargain across a supply chain or an industry. The Obama administration began to expand the definition of joint-employers — and the regulations that govern them — to include the firms setting wages and policy at franchised businesses, such as fast food chains. These efforts must be expanded to include firms that exert wage and policy control throughout a supply chain, with special attention paid to subcontracted or independent contractors whose compensation, hours, and even dress code are controlled by larger firms.

This is especially important when it comes to organizing and expanding the economic security of care work. Manufacturing is in a long-term decline as a percentage of the labor force, and it is unlikely to come back in a significant way. The future will involve more service work, much of which isn’t as legally protected. Home health-care workers, for instance, still have fewer rights than workers in many other professions. Formalizing these protections as the backbone of a middle-class life should be a central economic project.

Much of society’s essential work isn’t paid, formal labor. The work of childrearing, and the care labor that goes into keeping families running, is necessary. Beyond that, it reflects what is important to us. Yet employers don’t pay for it, even as they rely on it to keep their workforces running.

Democrats can argue for a broader social safety net — including such programs as a child allowance — to address this. A child allowance can be structured in several ways, but in general it is about ensuring that a stable, moderate payment is made to secure the economic wellbeing of young children. Evidence and international experience from such peer countries and Canada and the United Kingdom show that such a program can dramatically reduce childhood poverty, which we know has lifelong effects. But it also compensates caregivers for raising the child, work that could not be more important for society as a whole.

This is great. And I know they are just talking about economic issues. But to me, the theme of freedom is what should tie the Democratic room together in the future. It’s these freedoms delineated here. It’s also Freedom to Vote. Freedom from Sexual Assault. Freedom from Prisons. Freedom from Climate Change. Etc. Republicans are engaged in a multi-decade assault on all our freedoms, all way taking the word away from us to use in their psychotic free-market rhetorical assault against any institution providing a dignified life for Americans, not to mention their ridiculous fear-mongering about attacks on Christians. This has to change. “Freedom” is a powerful word. Democrats are moving rapidly to the left as Republicans become a fascist party. There is room to build a broad coalition around the idea of freedom. This does require the end of mealy-mouthed Democratic policy and caving or compromising with Republicans. Remember, it’s not that long ago that Democrats completely folded like a cheap tent in a windstorm on ACORN because of James O’Keefe’s lies. That kind of thing must never happen. Instead, we sharpen the distinctions between the parties.

Democrats support your freedom. Republicans want to take it away from you. That’s a winner, at least in my opinion.

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