Why “Bottom-Up” History is Useful Today

I became interested in history from the “bottom-up” when I was in high school. Books like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States introduced me to a new world where ordinary peoples’ lives and struggles were central to the historical process, not relegated to its margins. I remember devouring book after book of “people’s history” and—though I didn’t understand it as such then—the history of the global Left. I regularly visited the used bookstores in my neighborhood, snagging paperbacks on everyone from Malcolm X to Gandhi and everything from the Cuban Revolution to the civil rights movement. This reading, combined with my introduction to Marxism around the same time, was foundational for me. Learning about the powerful, dynamic history of past struggle gave me confidence for the present and future.

farmworkers

When I arrived at college, I learned more about where this “bottom-up” history came from. Prior to the 1960s, most historical scholarship focused on institutions, structures and “Great Men.” Many have called this history from the “top-down.” There were important exceptions that foreshadowed the later explosion of bottom-up history. These included C.L.R. James’ Black Jacobins and W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, both penned in the 1930s. These works gave voice to slaves, ex-slaves and workers. By and large, however, they were anomalies. Both works garnered little attention from the history profession.

Howard Zinn's People's History of the United StatesThe 1960s catalyzed a shift in historical inquiry that led to what we today call “bottom-up” history. The period’s radical spirit, and the example of mass movements composed of ordinary people, motivated a new generation of historians to look at the past with fresh eyes. Historians like Herbert Gutman and David Montgomery discovered a hidden history of the American working class, while scholars like Eugene Genovese did the same with slave era and post-slavery African-Americans. Perhaps the most influential of this new wave of historians was Edward Palmer Thompson, whose monumental The Making of the English Working Class set the tone and agenda for a generation of historians. This new social and cultural history took the world views of working people seriously. It viewed working-class cultures as central mediators of working-class consciousness. It focused on “agency” and uncovered vibrant traditions of resistance. Cumulatively, it made an irreversible contribution to the way history is told. Never again would historians be able to dismiss, ignore or marginalize the history of ordinary people and their struggles.

While bottom-up history shaped my basic outlook, I started questioning its value shortly after the 2004 election. There were two reasons for this. First, it seemed like the search for “agency” of subordinate peoples had reached absurd lengths. Historians were discovering “resistance” in the most trivial acts. Reading a certain dime novel or embroidering a certain pattern onto a doily, when processed through the academic assembly line, became an act of “resistance.” To be sure, even the most far-fetched works usually provided some sort of corrective and/or highlighted truths that had previously eluded historians’ eyes. It seemed, however, that almost anything any oppressed or working person ever did was some form of resistance.

This leads me to my second reason for growing disenchanted with bottom-up history. So much of it had been done, and taken to such lengths, that a simple fact was overlooked: the history of working and oppressed people since the 1960s had arguably been a history of defeat. Working peoples’ power and agency had been severely curtailed. The neoliberal corporate offensive had decimated the working class. African Americans still suffered from immense inequality and racism. Immigrants were being demonized. The degradation of women was still widely accepted in our culture.

CLR James's Black JacobinsNot enough attention had been given to this reality (at least in the discipline of history—other disciplines, such as sociology, paid much greater attention to these matters). In short, it seemed that we did not need another tale of heroic resistance and hidden agency of oppressed people. Rather, we needed to better understand the causes of their defeat. While not discarding the gains of the new social and cultural history, we needed a return to old fashioned, top-down, structural history.

This belief stayed with me for a while. During this time, I didn’t think too highly of bottom-up social and cultural history. However, the economic crisis and the general malaise on the American Left has brought me back to bottom-up history and made me appreciate its value.

I think the main problem of the Left is not insufficient knowledge or analysis of capitalism and its manifestations, but one of organizing. The Left is not organizing well enough and not developing a real base among the American people. Without a base, nothing we do can have that much real effect. Different factors—some beyond our control—go into winning over the mass base we so badly need. But one thing we need to do is reach people where they are at. Movements don’t magically sprout from ideas, but from actual human beings.

Bottom-up history instills a respect for and attention to people’s lives, culture and traditions. It shows how these things, under the right circumstances, provide seeds for mass resistance. It shows how new political cultures based on left ideas and values can emerge and become hegemonic. It shows how resistance and radical consciousness can arise from the very fabric of ordinary peoples’ lives and cultures.

Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomas’ Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics is an excellent example of the kind of bottom-up history we need. The authors situate the neoliberal era Bolivian radical mass movement in the context of centuries-old aspirations, traditions, cultures and dynamics. They show how popular memory and imagination has fed resistance, how the Bolivian people created a “usable history” that facilitated their own struggles. They show how organizers have consciously tapped into deep social and cultural traditions to mobilize and sustain movements. At the same time, Hylton and Sinclair weaved this cultural history with sharp analysis of the larger structural forces which shaped the patterns of Bolivian Indian and worker resistance.

(Revolutionary Horizons reminds me of something I observed when I visited Venezuela in 2005. The image of Simon Bolivar was ubiquitous, and Venezuelans’ use of his image and memory helped keep morale high and provide legitimacy for their current movement. His memory, constructed through the popular imagination in the context of struggle, has been vital to the mobilizing power of the Bolivarian Revolution.)

In their classic book Poor Peoples’ Movements (which, incidentally, places enormous emphasis on structural analysis), Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward write: “Opportunities for defiance are not created by analyses of power structures. If there is a genius in organizing, it is the capacity to sense what is possible for people to do under given conditions, and then to help them do it.” Analysis of “power structures” is vital work, and we have no shortage of fantastic left analysis of capitalism and its manifestations. This work will and should be kept up, helping us to understand our terrain and shape strategy and tactics. But we also need to keep producing and reading quality history that takes peoples’ cultures and worldviews seriously, that seeks to understand the actual human history and dynamics that go into sprouting resistance and organization. We will be better organizers and strategic thinkers if this sensibility is cultivated within us. And the main problem of the Left is learning how to organize effectively, both in terms of broader vision and day-to-day strategy and tactics.

Thoughts on the Anti-Foreclosure/Eviction Movement

The fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble resulted in a wave of foreclosures around the country. Millions of Americans either have been foreclosed on or are threatened with foreclosure and/or eviction resulting from foreclosure. The crisis is particularly severe in poor communities of color, though it is not confined to these communities.

Because of the broad, systemic nature of the crisis, its victims have garnered wide public sympathy. Hearting-breaking stories of foreclosed-upon families abound in the media. Though conservatives have tried to place blame on supposedly irresponsible mortgage borrowers, they have largely failed to stem sympathy for most impacted homeowners. Many people view the rapacious financial/mortgage industry as the main culprit that preyed upon so-called “middle class” Americans who “played by the rules.”

Many Leftists carry high hopes that the housing crisis might spur a mass bottom-up movement against evictions and foreclosures. The left-led, community-based anti-evictions struggles of the 1930s loom large in our imaginations when we aspire about the present situation. While a semblance of a movement has arisen, and while it has scored some successes, we are no where near the kind of movement we desire.

A decentralized national campaign has indeed arisen – “a budding resistance movement,” as the New York Times called it in February 2009. Local movements challenging foreclosures and evictions have sprouted in Miami, Baltimore, Philadelphia, the Twin Cities, and a host of other cities. One of the largest and most successful local campaigns has been conducted by City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston. Their confrontational, direct action tactics have succeeded in delaying several foreclosures.

There is little national coherence to this “movement.” It is fragmentary and decentralized, shaped primarily by local circumstances and actors. ACORN announced a national “broad civil disobedience campaign,” but we have yet to see any serious, consistent action to back up this claim. Local movements are usually composed of some combination of non-profits, local activists, community members, city government allies, leftists, and tenants and homeowners facing eviction. The main rhetoric and demands of the movements revolve around two ideas. The first is “bail out the people, not the banks;” the second is some variant of a call for a foreclosure moratorium.

The movement has two constituencies: homeowners facing eviction and tenants facing eviction because their landlord was foreclosed. Local campaigns use tactics including protests at statehouses, direct actions attempting to blockade threatened homes, legislation-oriented advocacy, squatting in vacant homes, and pickets in front of homes facing foreclosure or in front of bailed-out banks that are kicking people out of their homes. Most local movements have aimed for legislation that will stop or slow down foreclosures and evictions. One popular legislative demand has been for “Just Cause” law, which allow tenants in good standing to remain in their foreclosed homes until they are sold.

The movement has made some gains. In cities around the nation, activists have successfully pressured local government and the mortgage industry to make concessions—some real, some rhetorical—on foreclosure policy and deal with homeowners/tenants for sensitively. Protests have kept the plight of the victims in the local media. Moreover, a small strata of tenants and homeowners have been empowered by the actions. Local movements have provided tenants and homeowners with lawyers and educated them about their legal rights.

That said, the limits and shortcomings of the anti-foreclosure/eviction movement are substantial. In almost all places where resistance exists, it is small-scale and composed mostly of activists, not the people affected (they do participate, but in small numbers). The base for the movement is transient; once people are evicted or foreclosed, they move. Furthermore, the default strategy for people facing foreclosure or eviction is not collective protest. They try to cope with their dilemma on their own, with the help of friends and family. Individualist solutions prevail over collective ones, though the extent of this varies depending on specific cities and neighborhoods. This reflects a broader trend within American society and culture which has accompanied the post-1960s neoliberal offensive.

* * *

In Providence, Rhode Island, we have organized a local movement that reflects the more general strengths and limitations I have discussed. Rhode Island has been hit hard by the housing crisis. One study predicts that foreclosures will affect one of every thirty-one homes in the state. Communities of color, ranging from South Providence to Woonsocket, have been heavily impacted.

In 2008, concerned activists initiated the Rhode Island Bank Tenants and Homeowners Association (RIBTHA). The spark for the group came from a local housing non-profit that was part of larger non-profit milieu working on poverty, homelessness, immigrant and labor issues. The initial meetings had representatives from non-profits, local activists, students and tenants and homeowners. We initiated a parallel coalition specifically for and run by tenants and homeowners. Among other things, the latter drew up a “Tenants Bill of Rights” to bring to the Statehouse.

We sponsored several actions between late 2008 and May 2009, including a picket in front of a home facing foreclosure, protests at the statehouse in support of pro-tenant/homeowner legislation, and a protest in front of a Bank of American branch located in an affected community. Anywhere between 50 and 125 people showed up to these actions. They garnered impressive media attention.

A handful of homeowners and tenants have become active in the movement and assumed leadership roles. They have spoke at rallies and told their stories. Some people who have never attended protests in their lives are now invested in and supportive of our efforts. RIBTHA has also provided tenants and homeowners with much-needed legal aid. We have carried out extensive research on the foreclosure crisis’ impact on Rhode Island. We have been successful in conveying the existence of a “movement” around foreclosures and evictions in the media and the minds of policymakers and mortgage bankers.

At the same time, the movement is not large and it is not growing. Our meetings have dwindled, as have participants at actions. At our last event, nearly 40-50 people attended, but hardly anyone from the community was present (this was partially because of poor time for the event – 3:30pm on a Friday – but it still reflected a larger trend). In the nearly seven months that RIBTHA has been active, we cannot claim any major victories. Lately, organizers have been contemplating how to revive and expand the local movement in the face of waning enthusiasm and participation, legislative half-measures and a lack of resources.

* * *

In short, while a decentralized movement has arisen to combat foreclosures and evictions, it is nothing near the mass bottom-up movement we hope to see. It has served more as a publicity effort that provides the impression of a movement for the media while not really being one (though some local efforts – like Boston’s – have made more substantive progress). Though it can ratchet up pressure to score minimal gains, it is not powerful enough to substantially shape housing policy. For now, half-measures by the federal, state and local government will prevail.

Overall, the movement faces three tasks. First, it needs more national coherence. Local activists need to be in touch with each other, sharing lessons and possibly coordinating actions. It needs to more fully take on the character of a national movement. This will increase the morale and legitimacy of local efforts.

Second, we need to develop better local strategies for activating people in communities affected by the crisis. The Left is good at organizing protests, but it is bad at organizing the working-class in its own communities. We must re-learn how to do this essential work, paying close attention to and respecting local dynamics, cultures and traditions. We need to think outside of the box on how we can build a new base.

Third, we need to build a movement that is not dependent on the non-profits. Some non-profits fully throw themselves into anti-foreclosure/eviction efforts. Others are more intent on giving the appearance of base-building and protest as a means to earning clout and negotiating half-measures with mortgage industry and local government bigwigs. Furthermore, there is sometimes a gap between many non-profit organizers, who are invested in real struggle, and their bosses, who are not. While non-profits provide valuable resources to sustain the movement (such as full-time organizers and meeting space), the movement should be based on a coalition of activists and community members who sustain it. Ideally, the local and national movement should hire full-time organizers who are accountable to the grassroots efforts and aspirations.

Socialism on the Rise, or Another Example of the Left’s Wishful Thinking?

There is some minor celebration occurring on the U.S. Left because of a recent Rasmussen Poll that shows only 53% of Americans clearly prefer capitalism over socialism.

The World Socialist Website declared that the poll results are “a stunning refutation of the official manufactured public opinion,” and that “[t]o the extent that socialism is understood as the opposite of capitalism, it is viewed favorably by substantial sections of the population.”

The Party for Socialism and Liberation claimed the results are “a very encouraging sign” that reveal “more and more workers, especially younger ones, are open to alternative ideas and are less infected by the mindless anti-socialist ideology that is promoted in the media and in social studies textbooks.”

The poll results surely reflect some form of disenchantment with this status quo. But what do they really signify? I don’t think they are that significant. There is the obvious problem that the terms “socialism” and “capitalism” were not defined in the poll. For the 20% who said they preferred socialism, we have no idea what they think “socialism” is. Fox News makes a national healthcare plan sound like socialism. If this is what a fraction of people polled support, it is not cause for celebration. Nor should we have such low expectations of Americans to be surprised by these poll results.

More importantly, the US Left is apt at reading progress into small-scale, symbolic things, whether this be a favorable poll result or a sporadic protest. But an economic crisis is not a political crisis; disenchantment with the current system is not the eroding of the current system. These poll results are meaningless, in practice, as long as there are no organized efforts that harness the growing disenchantment into a political force.

The Left only reproduces the wrong approach when it reads its big fantasies into merely symbolic ripples. There will be more economic crises, more sporadic protests, more symbolic reflections of dissatisfaction with capitalism. But as long as these are just that—symbolic or exceptional—they only signify a potential that we are miserably failing to capitalize upon. As Adolph Reed likes to say, the problem of the Left is not one of ideas, but of organizing.

Any thoughts? I have more to say, but I’m interested in what others have think. Does the Rasmussen Poll really matter for socialists? And if so, how? How can we translate broad disenchantment into a positive political force?

EFCA, AIG and the Political Struggle Over the Current “Populist Anger”

The conservative spin-machine is running at full throttle in its attempt to thwart the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and potentially related-pro-worker legislation.

Today’s Wall Street Journal, for instance, featured an op-ed by former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao that invokes some of the usual boogiemen: the threat of “European-style policies,” which merit no discussion and spell doomsday a priori; the horror of expanding so-called “entitlement programs” such as paid leave for workers for family-related reasons; and allusions to the Democratic Party’s “governing elite” (which it is, for sure, but railing on elitism smacks of deceit and opportunism when it comes from a central mouthpiece of the ruling class).

An editorial in the same issue of the Wall Street Journal, discussing the anti-AIG backlash, decried that “[w]e’ve now got a full-fledged mob on our hands.” The editorial chastises the Democrats’ opportunism in piling upon AIG (fair enough, especially now that Senator Dodd’s role in constructing the bonus loop hole has been revealed). It evades any discussion pertaining to the roots and causes of the rightful mass anger towards the bonuses, and instead uses the Democrats as a proxy to denounce this anger.

There is a reason why conservatives are so viciously on the attack. They are scared that legislation like EFCA, popular support for raising taxes on the wealthy, and the legitimation of public spending programs could overturn the anti-labor, pro-business worldview they—with Democratic Party assistance—have worked so hard to establish as mainstream “common sense” during the last few decades. With their worldview so momentously discredited by the economic crisis, there now exists an opening for a shift towards a more just, pro-worker political-economic arrangement.

We see glimpses of this in the furor surrounding the AIG bonuses. The anti-AIG outrage is populist fodder for further anti-big business legislation. Right now, a proposal for 90% taxation on the AIG bonuses is being proposed in the House. This could be a significant political defeat for conservatives. It could be an opening for progressive tax policies that distribute wealth downwardly.

Unfortunately, paper victories won’t amount to much if there is no mobilized base to push them further. The anti-ruling class anger that is erupting among tens of millions of Americans is now shapeless, lacking organization and political programmatic basis. The struggle to harness this anger to various political interests is in full gear.

The left is not winning this war. If it doesn’t, the moment will pass and public opinion will mostly likely be successfully re-integrated into a new pro-business capitalist consensus. It’s happened before—after the Great Depression/WWII, for instance.

Where we now stand, conservatives are going to win the public opinion struggle over EFCA. The Far Right’s strategy of appealing to peoples’ basest emotions and of lying via omission of inconvenient facts is being complimented by a comparatively lackluster effort by labor and its supposed political allies in the Democratic Party.

Right now, many Americans are skeptical of the labor movement, and they are more conditioned to believe the Fox News line on EFCA than they are to listen to the AFL-CIO (if they even have access to the latter’s view). The problem is that the class-hued populist anger now fermenting is detached from the labor movement, not feeding into it. Labor should be conducting a massive campaign—via commercials, mail-outs, door-to-door meetings, and massive mobilizations, backed by tens of millions of dollars… in other words, all the things they typically do for Democratic Part presidential runs—that tie EFCA and the union movement more generally to the anti-big business sentiment now boiling up. Labor needs to do a better job of positioning itself as the voice and vehicle for the broader, inchoate pro-“Little Guy” and anti-corporate steam that politicians are now vying to channel into their own ships.

The political willpower for a broad shift in American political culture is there, but it needs to be fought for, and much more strongly so. If this is the contingent moment that those on the left-progressive political spectrum have been waiting for, our actions are not reflecting this. The Right, on the other hand, clearly understands the stakes. Democrats are just opportunistically riding the waves created by everyone and everything else.

Howie Hawkins Press Release

(There will be a post-election interview with Howie Hawkins on Solidarity Webzine. Hawkins is a longtime third party activist who is running as a “Green Populist Candidate” for the 25th District of New York in the 2008 Congressional election)

Howie Hawkins for Congress
25th District, New York
www.howiehawkins.org

Media Release
For Immediate Release: Wednesday, October 29

For More Information: Howie Hawkins, 315-425-1019, hhawkins@igc.org

Hawkins Says It’s Time to Spread the Wealth in America – From the Bottom Up

Calls for Hike in Minimum Wage to At Least $10 an Hour

and Mandatory Paid Vacations for All Workers

Howie Hawkins, the Green Populist candidate for Congress in the 25th District, showed he is willing to go where Senator Obama and the Democrats fear to tread today when he called for Congress to support a redistribution of wealth in America in order to provide a decent standard of living for all Americans.

“Workers need a raise and a vacation,” Hawkins said, in calling for amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that would raise the minimum wage to a living wage and mandate four weeks paid vacation for all American workers.

“The federal government has taken the side of corporate elites since the early 1970s to make the rich richer at the expense of the rest of us. The Orwellian doublespeak by the two major parties – but especially Sen. McCain – in denying what they have done is breath taking considering the real facts of 35 years of upward redistribution of income and wealth. Their solution for everything, even after the recent financial shenanigans, is more tax cuts and subsidies for the rich. Whether it’s McCain’s extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich or Obama’s $3000 a year wage subsidy to business for new jobs, it’s always corporate welfare. The truth is that since 1973, wages have been stagnant for middle income workers and declined for bottom 40% of workers, while wealth and income has concentrated at the top,” Hawkins noted.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the share of national after-tax income going to the top 1 percent of households more than doubled between 1979 (when it stood at 7.5 percent) and 2005 (when it reached 15.6 percent). If wages had kept pace with productivity gains since 1973, as they did between after World War II until 1972, the average wage today would be $26 an hour, instead of $16, which is the same as it was in 1973 in real terms. 45 million workers make less than $10 an hour, which is below the poverty level for a family of three working full time

“The federal minimum wage should be raised it immediately to $10 an hour, to what it was in real terms in 1968, and then to $15 an hour within 5 years,” Hawkins added. Hawkins would also index the minimum wage to the cost of living.

Hawkins noted that the progressive income tax was intended to help reduce the inequalities of income by having the rich paying a higher percentage of their income to fund government. But in recent decades, the progressivity of the income tax has been reduced, while regressive payroll taxes have increased.

Numbers released by the CBO in 2005 showed the gap between the wealthiest Americans and everybody else had grown to its widest point since at least 1979. The top 1 percent of households received 70 times as much in average after-tax income as the bottom one-fifth of households in 2005 — the widest such income gap on record, with data available back to 1979. In 1979, by comparison, the richest households made 23 times as much as the poorest households. The average income of the top 1 percent of households was more than 21 times that of the middle one-fifth of households. This, too, was the widest such ratio on record.

Labor’s share of national income had declined from 59.3 percent in 1970 to 51.6 percent in 2006, the lowest share since records began in 1929. Profits in 2006 were 13.8% of national income in 2006, the also highest share since 1929. In a $14 trillion dollar economy, that represents about a $1 trillion a year shift of income from workers’ wages to owners’ profits.

Inequality of income and wealth is now the most unequal since good records began with the institution of the income tax in 1913, with the single exception of 1928, the year before the Great Depression began. The top one percent now receives more income than the bottom 50 percent and owns more wealth than the bottom 96 percent.

“It should be the express goal of government to achieve a fairer distribution of wealth and income and power. The ridicule of wealth redistribution by the McCain and the Republicans and the denial by Obama and the Democrats that they intend to redistribute wealth demonstrates that differences between the economic policies offered by the corporate-sponsored parties are negligible. In fact, both supported wealth redistribution from working people to the richest financial elites when they supported the Wall Street bailouts,” Hawkins said.

“Wage-led, demand side, bottom-up economic development is what we need now for economic recovery. But the emphasis from the major party candidates is on more tax cuts for business for the supply side, trickle-down approach that has sent us into the present economic tailspin. Obama’s rhetoric against trickle-down economics is not matched by his proposals, or his actions with respect to the bailouts of financial speculators, or the economic advisors he has chosen like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. And we have heard nothing from the major party candidates in this congressional race that distinguishes their approach from the economic policies of their own parties’ presidential standard bearers,” Hawkins said

In addressing the argument of business lobbies that they need incentives in order to take risks on expansion and new products, Hawkins said, “Today’s business leaders are the laziest cohort of business leadership in our history. They constantly whine that they can’t make new investments without corporate welfare to guarantee returns. They won’t do business without special tax breaks, subsidies, and loan guarantees from the government. Meanwhile, the top executives take home outrageous compensation packages even when their companies lose money. Corporate CEO compensation today amounts to over 400 times the wage incomes of their average employees, up from 40 times in 1980 and 8 times in 1946. European and Japanese CEO’s do business with salaries in the range of 10 to 12 times of their average employees wages.”

Hawkins said the alternative to state-guaranteed profits for timid business leaders was to democratize economic enterprises. “If business leaders won’t take the risks on the business opportunities that higher wages and more consumer demand will open up, then it’s time to socialize the risks through public banking where the public shares in the risks and rewards, the losses and the gains, from business investments, and to target public bank investments to worker-owned cooperatives where income is shared among all the firm’s workers in proportion to their labor contribution.”

“Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was right when he said, ‘We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.’ I would add that we need economic democracy to fully realize political democracy,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins noted that October 24th was the 70th anniversary of 1938 adoption of the FLSA, also known as Wages and Hours Bill, which set federal minimum wage, abolished child labor, set the 40 hour work week and time and a half for overtime.

Hawkins said that making the minimum wage a living wage is not only the right thing to do ethically, so no working families are in poverty, it would also help stimulate the economy far more than throwing trillions at big bankers to buy their bad loans and securities, finance their acquisition of other financial firms, and pay themselves billions in salaries and bonuses.

“Wage-led, bottom-up economic recovery will work better than the failed trickle-down policies of tax breaks for the rich,” Hawkins asserted. “We should also mandate at least four weeks of paid vacation. Mandatory paid vacations was part of the original draft of the Fair Labor Standards Act. President Roosevelt brought it up again in his 1944 State of the Union address outlining his proposed Economic Bill of Rights, which included the right to recreation. Mandatory paid vacations for all workers is a long overdue reform which all of Europe already has. Americans put in more hours at work than any other industrial nation, including the notoriously workaholic Japanese, but it is seriously impairing out physical and civic health.”

Medical and poll-based evidence indicates that we seriously need relief. Work-related stress can lead to sudden heart attacks, obesity, anxiety, and depression. Americans average nine more weeks of labor per year than Western Europe, where workers in every county there get at least 20 paid days of vacation each year. Finland tops the list of vacation-supporting industrialized nations with 30 paid vacation days per year after the first year of work, plus 14 paid national holidays, according to a July 2007 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Canada and Japan are near the bottom of that list, with a legal minimum of 10 vacation days. The US is the only industrialized nation that does not have a mandatory minimum of vacation time. Of the world’s 195 independent countries, 137 have some kind of vacation/annual leave legislation in place. 52 percent of working Americans received less than a week of paid vacation in the past year and more than half of those received none. 65 percent of American workers received less than two paid weeks off.

A survey by Take Back Your Time of more than 1,000 U.S. adults found that more than two-thirds (69 percent) of Americans support the passage of a paid vacation law. Most enthusiastic about vacation-time-legislation were people under 35 (83 percent); African Americans (89 percent); Latinos (82 percent); people earning low incomes (82 percent); women (75 percent, versus 63 percent for men); and families with children (74 percent).

In addition, Hawkins said FSLA should be amended to also provide for:

A 32-Hour, 4-day Work Week

A Double-Pay Minimum for All Overtime

An Hour Off with Pay for Every Two Hours of Overtime

One Year Paid Leave for Every Seven Years of Work

Twelve weeks paid family leave for each newborn or adopted child, and for taking care of ill family members.

“Taken together these proposals will create millions of new jobs and allow us the free time we need to care for our families and to participate in our communities. More family time and more community participation should be the fruit of the increased labor productivity we have achieved over the last 35 years,” Hawkins added.

Hawkins added that the FSLA must be amended to cover agricultural, domestic, and other excluded workers, which is a legacy of 1930s racism which wanted to keep black labor in the South and Chicano and Asian labor in Southwest and West cheap and segregated. FLSA must also be amended to ban the use of prison labor to produce goods and services for public markets, Hawkins said.

Hawkins noted that his proposals for amendments to the FSLA were adopted at Labor Party convention to which he was a delegate in June 1996 in Cleveland. The convention was composed delegates from labor unions representing some 6 million workers, including the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, United Electrical workers, International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, American Federatation of Government Employees, United Mine Workers, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and California Nurses Association, as well as delegates from local chapters of the Labor Party.

“Unfortunately, most of the unions did not follow through on their declaration of political independence in Cleveland. Unions have contributed over $10 billion to the Democrats since 1980, yet demands such as these are nowhere to be seen in platforms of Democratic candidates. Labor support is taken for granted by the Democrats because labor never threatens to support its own party. On the other hand, independent labor parties in Western Europe achieved most of these demands decades ago. The lesson is clear. Workers need their own party, independent of the corporate-sponsored Democrats and Republicans,” Hawkins said.