The American Constitution did not include provisions for the protection of social and economic rights, such as the right to an adequate wage and adequate nutrition as well as equal access to education and health care. In response to this situation, there emerged popular democratic movements that sought to expand the scope of democratic rights to include the right to the social and economic conditions that are a necessary for a decent human life.
An important example is the labor movement. In the United States, the labor movement developed primarily trade unionism as against working-class consciousness (Cohen 1970). Trade unionism focuses on the attainment of better wages and working conditions for the organized workers of the higher paid trades, and it tends to lead to a division of the working class and the incorporation of higher paid workers into the consumer society. In contrast, working-class consciousness stresses the unity of all workers, and it seeks the protection of the social and economic rights of all.
But working-class consciousness did exist as a secondary tendency in the US labor movement. From 1905 to 1920, the International Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) sought to form one big union that included workers of all trades, skilled and unskilled workers, women workers, and black workers; in contrast to the American Federation of Labor, which was an exclusive federation consisting overwhelmingly of white male workers who were organized in the higher-wage trades. But government repression of the IWW beginning in 1919 led to its destruction. In the 1930s, communists played an active role in organizing textile workers and tenant farmers in the South and urban workers in the North, and they sought to educate workers into working-class consciousness. But their influence in the labor movement was eliminated by repression during Cold War of the post-World War II era (Zinn 2005:328-54, 381-86).
In 1935 and 1936, there were sit-down strikes, not organized by union leadership but by rank-and-file workers, thus constituting a serious threat to the stability of the system. In response to these threats, the National Labor Relations Board was established. It controlled labor rebellions by granting legal status to unions, making concessions to union demands for improvements in living and working conditions, and channeling labor energy into contracts, negotiations, and union meetings. Such reforms as a minimum wage, the forty-hour work week, and retirement and unemployment benefits were established. These were concrete and important gains, but the new labor-management system undermined the possibility of a working-class alliance with other popular sectors that could take control of political institutions from the capitalist class and its political representatives (Zinn 2005:393-402).
The African-American movement also provides an important example of the demand for social and economic rights in the United States. Its expression can be found in the Reconstruction and populist movements of the South in the period of 1865 to 1895, the declarations of the NAACP in the 1920s, the concept of black community control formulated by Malcolm X and the black nationalist strain from 1964 to 1972, the Poor People’s Campaign of Martin Luther King in 1968, and the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson in the 1980s (McKelvey 1994).
In Western Europe, working-class consciousness was more fully developed than in the United States, and the social democratic movement had a greater impact on Western European political culture. There emerged a broadening of the definition of democracy to include the social and economic rights, such as the right of all citizens to a decent wages and adequate working condition as well as to nutrition, housing, education, and health care (Miller and Potthoff 1986; Paterson and Thomas 1986). Nonetheless, the reversals of the gains in Western Europe since 1980 suggest fundamental limitations in the reformist strategy that has been adopted by the Western European working-class organizations and parties, as distinct from a revolutionary strategy that would seek to take control of national political structures through an alliance of workers with other popular sectors (Regalado 2007:43-47).
Partly as a result of the influence of the social democratic movements of Western Europe, and partly as a result of the participation of the communist governments of Eastern Europe in the United Nations, the deepening of the meaning of democracy to include social and economic rights has occurred in the world as a whole. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emitted by the United Nations in 1948, includes articles that proclaim protection of social and economic rights, including the right to a decent standard of living and to food, housing, and medical care.
In addition, the protection of social and economic rights has been an integral component of the anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial revolutions of the Third World, commonly expressed as a dimension of the right to development, viewed as the most fundamental of all human rights. The demand for the protection of social and economic rights can be found in the declarations of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization of the governments of the Third World. And it is a fundamental dimension of the renewed popular movements of Latin America today. We will discuss these movements in future posts.
Although the US government conducts its foreign policy on the premise that the United States is more democratic than any other nation, most of the nations and peoples of the earth have a more advanced understanding of democracy with respect to the protection of social and economic rights.
Cohen, Sanford. 1970. Labor in the United States, 3rd edition. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.
McKelvey, Charles. 1994. The African-American Movement: From Pan-Africanism to the Rainbow Coalition. Bayside, New York: General Hall.
Miller, Susanne, and Heinrich Potthoff. 1986. A History of German Social Democracy from 1848 to the present. Translated from the German by J.A. Underwood. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Paterson, William E., and Alastair H. Thomas, Eds. 1986. The Future of Social Democracy. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Regalado, Roberto. 2007. Latin America at the Crossroads: Domination, Crisis, Popular Movements, and Political Alternatives. New York: Ocean Press.
Zinn, Howard. 2005. A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, labor, labor movement, labor unions, trade-union consciousness, working-class consciousness, social democracy, social and economic rights