This week marked the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was drafted by a commission of the United Nations that was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. The Convention became effective in 1951, the United States finally ratified it in 1988 and it was signed by President George H.W. Bush.
What would it be like if people in the United States knew they had these rights and demanded to have them realized? We believe it would be a very different world – the economy would be a more equitable with full employment, healthcare for all, no people without housing and more humane on every front. Instead, this week an annual report of Credit Suisse ranked the US as the most unequal of all advanced countries.
As a general guide for understanding human rights there are five principles that should be applied to every policy: universality, equity, transparency, accountability and participation. In a nutshell, universality means that policies apply to all people. Equity means that people have what they need in order to be at the same level as others. Participation means that people have input into the policies that affect their lives.
Harriet Tubman once said, “I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Similarly, we have human rights and our rights are being violated every day, yet many are not aware of this.
Economic Inequality and Austerity
Wealth inequality has worsened under the Obama Presidency. This is remarkable because historically after an economic collapse, the wealth divide closes during the recovery phase. According to the 2013 report, “In the U.S., the bottom 90% of the population own only 24.6% of all the privately held wealth, whereas in most of the developed world, the bottom 90% own around 40%; so, the degree of wealth-concentration in the U.S. is extraordinary…”
There hasn’t been any recovery for the bottom 90%. Public policies have continued to funnel wealth to the top while cutting the social infrastructure. Ellen Brown explains that the Federal Reserve Act prevents the Quantitative Easing (QE), the $85 billion created each month, from being used to invest in businesses and create jobs. She describes the Act as being “drafted by bankers to create a banker’s bank that would serve their interests. It is their own private club, and its legal structure keeps all non-members out.” So, instead of assisting Main Street, the QE has gone to Wall Street and has been used for financial trading that places our entire economy at risk of collapse. Activists will begin a yearlong campaign to change the Fed on Dec. 23rd at all 12 Federal Reserve Buildings. Taxpayers need to take back the power to create money in a transparent way; the government should be spending debt free money on urgent necessities and providing people with the money they need to survive and create full employment.
Since early 2010, the Obama administration with Congress has pursued austerity with the federal budget, which is the opposite of what is needed in order to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment. Working closely with deficit hawks such as Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles and the Peterson Foundation, whose mission is to end social insurances, necessary programs such as unemployment benefits, food stamps, Medicare and Head Start have been cut.
Pascal Robert writes that this year alone, the Sequester forced “$9.9 billion in cuts to Medicare, $840 million in cuts to special education programs, and $400 million in cuts to Head Start, in addition to the nearly $2 billion slashed from housing aid.” He calls this “Obama’s war on the poor.” Economist Robert Reich calls the new budget “dumb” because it“doesn’t close tax loopholes for wealthy, restore food stamps to poor, or extend unemployment benefits for jobless.” He calls for investment in repairing our failing infrastructure which would solve critical safety concerns and create jobs.
The economic trends look bad for most of us. College students are graduating with higher levels of debt each year into an employment environment in which they are forced to delay their desired career path and work for poverty wages. While the official unemployment rate for college graduates has dropped, that doesn’t consider the 1.7 million who have stopped looking for work.
The combination of poverty wages, the foreclosure crisis and the buying up of distressed homes by investors has caused the percentage of renters to rise dramatically to 35% of households, the highest in ten years. And more than half of renters are paying over 30% of their incomes on rent alone. It is a landlord’s market and some renters are wondering if it is time to revolt.
And there is no end in sight to this economic situation. The Guardian writes that the State Policy Network, funded by the Koch brothers and Kraft, is gearing up to push legislation in a number of states that will undermine public employee pay and pensions, further privatize education, oppose Medicaid and even try to stop efforts to mitigate climate change. They are even pushing to get rid of income tax in certain areas, a move that will appeal to some but will force more cuts to important social programs.
The simultaneous transfer of wealth to the top and austerity measures for the rest looks like certain social suicide, but it seems that those in power are sick with greed and cannot help themselves. Chris Hedges describes the problem to Paul Jay of The Real News this week in an interview called The Pathology of the Rich, saying “They will extract more and more and more, because they have no self-imposed limits, without understanding the economic, political, and social consequences of what they’re doing.”
Trade Agreements and the Federal Budget
The wealth divide is created by policy choices made by those in power. We can see how they rig the economy for their wealthy donors and big business interests, at the expense of local businesses, entrepreneurs, workers and the poor. Right now this economic rigging is playing out in the secret negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
We are witnessing the acceleration of a global neoliberal economic agenda through the TPP and the Atlantic version, TAFTA. In Europe a document was leaked that described the strategy of lying to the people of Europe of the “management of stakeholders, social media and transparency” to give a false appearance of listening to them and silencing them. At the same time their TAFTA communications strategy will promise jobs and economic growth – when we know from past corporate trade agreements those are false promises. The approach in Europe is taken from the playbook of the Obama administration in the United States: mislead the public, hide the truth and keep the contents secret.
Stan Sorscher writes that these trade agreements are about more than trade. They are “political, social, cultural and moral documents, which set political and social standards for countries and communities.” They create a legal system that overrules the ability to pass laws that protect the public and environment if that protection interferes with corporate profits.
Fortunately, because of public protests and exposure that the US is pushing polices that violate international norms, the TPP negotiations this week in Singapore broke down. Wikileaks revealed that the US remains inflexible pushing extreme pro-corporate policies as other negotiating countries try to represent the interests of their people.
The World Trade Organization concluded its meetings this week in Bali. Hundreds of people from civil society groups protested both inside and outside of the meetings. An agreement was reached but still has to go to each country for ratification before it takes effect. The reaction of civil society showed great concern about the contents of the agreement in particular because of the expansion of corporate rights and the threats to food sovereignty. They write, “No country should have to beg for the right to guarantee the right to food.”
In the US, a coalition of civil society groups also responded to the budget passed this week in Congress with their own People-Peace-Planet Budget announced on December 10, Human Rights Day, which contained up to a 50% reduction in military spending and investment in domestic needs. They said “One of every two Americans in now in poverty or low income. We’re not just hungry for food. We’re hungry for jobs, homes, for schools, for the basic necessities of life. We are hungry for justice!” A small delegation brought the budget to Congress and presented it to the offices of Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray unannounced. Dennis Trainor, Jr. of the Resistance Report covered their response.
A few hours later, Democrats and Republicans, the bipartisan corporate parties in Congress (the only parties allowed in our faux democracy), reached a budget deal that will restore full military spending while allowing food stamp and unemployment cuts to move forward. The agreement has been described as “awesomely destructive” because it continues austerity, does not extend unemployment or restore cuts to food stamp. It cuts pensions, cuts Medicaid and taxes Medicare but restores military spending. It is a job-killing, economy-weakening budget. “This deal asks essentially nothing of the richest Americans while placing terrible burdens on the unemployed as well as new federal employees, and continuing the fiscal policy drag on our still-unfinished recovery,” said Lawrence Mishel, executive director of the Economic Policy Institute.
Fighting For Our Human Rights
Many in civil society are beginning to understand that human rights are not being respected. Our rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and illustrated in this graphic, such as the right to healthcare and other basic necessities, privacy and unrestricted travel, are being violated. It is up to us to organize and mobilize to demand that these rights are honored.
In fact, one of those rights according to international covenants is the right to resist, which US founders called Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Assembly and the Right to Petition Government for Redress of Grievances. Maciej Bartkowki and Annyssa Bellal write that the international community must support nonviolent civil resistance so that “a ‘people polity’ may represent a decisive force for a final push away from traditional state-driven discourse and practice … towards people-oriented, popular sovereignty based on the rights and responsibility to uphold them.”
On December 10, we participated in a meeting at the office of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) in New York City. NESRI facilitates organizing by groups around the country that use a human rights framework. The first step is for activists and their communities to understand that they have certain rights. The dominant culture in the United States tells us that we have rights to abstract concepts such as freedom but not to the tangible basic necessities of education, housing, health care, jobs and more. And the second step is to identify where these rights are being violated and organize to restore and protect them.
When the human rights framework is applied to any issue, the solution becomes evident. For example on healthcare, it would not treated as a commodity that is a profit center for wealthy investors, but a public good provided as a public service to all. For employment, it would mean a full employment economy where workers were paid a livable, not a poverty, wage. These are two examples of many.
One area where there is an aggressive fight for human rights is the campaign for $15 an hour minimum wage. We examined the breadth of this class war conflict in a recent weekly review: the 1,500 Walmart protests and the 100 cities where low-wage workers walked out being two recent examples. People are realizing this is not just a struggle for a fair wage but for a different kind of country that respects human rights. And people realize that our tax dollars are subsidizing the unethical practices of Walmart, McDonalds, Starbucks and others who pay poverty wages while taxpayers subsidize their employees’ food, healthcare, housing and CEO income.
In SeaTac, the town where the Seattle-Takoma airport is located, people voted to raise the minimum wage to $15. This is an incredible victory. Not only do workers get $15 an hour (about $31,000 annual wage) but they get paid sick days. Of course, the people who profiteer from low-wage workers do not want to give up their virtual slave labor. Alaska Airlines and the Washington Restaurant Association have challenged the new law in court. This is often part of the battle for fairness.
In another victory Schneider Logistics, a company that runs warehouses for Walmart has agreed to pay $4.7 million to as many as 568 workers after they sued over stolen wages, i.e. failing to pay overtime and deducting wages from their paychecks among other things. Walmart, well known for forcing contractors and suppliers to reduce their prices, tried to escape public blame by saying the workers did not work directly for them. This does not pass the straight face test because we know this is part of the Walmartization of the economy.
In another remarkable story , Flor Molina, who came to the United States so she could feed her family in Mexico, was promised a job because of her sewing skills. When she got here she found out that she had become a slave, locked into a room with other slaves in Los Angeles and forced to work. After 40 days she escaped and found a group, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST). The group helped her to deal with the abuse she suffered and she is now a pioneering member of CAST’s Survivor’s Caucus, a group of women from 13 countries who escaped slavery in the United States. They work to craft policies that meet the needs of trafficking victims on issues like health care and visa protections. “Now that I’m a grandmother, I want a world free of slavery,” Molina says. “Now that I survived, I want to change something.”
Others who stand up and fight back need our support. We urge everyone to boycott Dominos Pizza because of their mistreatment of workers. In one case, Dominos workers who complained about being paid less than the minimum wage were fired. Wage theft is very common. In New York, one survey found 84% of workers reported forms of wage theft. The Dominos in Washington Heights on 181st street practices a type of wage theft. Let @Dominos know that you will not buy their products until this injustice is corrected. Solidarity is critical to defeating these human rights abuses.
Starbucks, which is in the top ten companies with poverty wages, has a contractor that provides them with their paper coffee cups. The union is fighting for a fair contract but the owner is trying to force them to accept cuts to the salaries and benefits, including losing a paid lunch hour. Recently the workers took their fight public with the help of the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU), a small grassroots network of baristas and shift supervisors. They organized an international Week of Action in 15 major cities to call attention to the injustices they’re facing. They want Starbucks to step in and join their call. Tweet @Starbucks and tell them – respect their workers, support the workers at their Paciv Stockton paper cup company.
Another major area of human rights is the right to education. The Universal Declaration says “Everyone has a right to education” and that “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” These rights are being violated in the United State as austerity and corporatization undermine education.
People are standing up to fight for their right to education – this includes students, parents and teachers. We especially need to support the efforts of students who stand up for their rights like the inspiring Algebra Project youth. This week, there was a day of actions across the country to take back public schools.
One more area where human rights are violated in the United States is housing. Not only are economic policies making housing unaffordable, but people who can no longer afford housing are being widely criminalized, as are those who provide food to the hungry. This week in San Francisco, housing activists blocked a google bus to protest the evictions resulting from tech-driven gentrification that makes housing too expensive for many.
These are just a few examples. We can look to almost every issue and find the violation of human rights. And, we can also see that if the five principles of human rights were applied, the policies would be very different and we would see a country that met the necessities of people and protected the planet from ecological destruction.
Time for Outrage
In 2010 Stephane Hessel (here’s a website inspired by his work) who fought in the French Resistance and was the youngest member of the staff of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wrote a short book “Time for Outrage” (Indignez-vous!). He was 95 when he died in 2013. His book is credited with being one of the catalysts of the Indignado movement, the forerunner of the Occupy Movement. It has sold millions of copies and been translated into 17 languages.
Hessel begins by piercing the false rhetoric of the type we hear from the bi-partisans in Washington and neoliberals around the world:
“We are told, shamelessly, that the state cannot bear the cost of certain civil measures any longer. But how can we lack the funds when our nations enjoy greater wealth than any time since Liberation, when Europe lay in ruins? How else to explain this but for the corrupt power of money … which is now greater, more insolent, and more selfish than ever.
“The wealthy have installed their slaves in the highest spheres of state. The banks are privately owned. They are concerned solely with profits. They have no interest in the common good. The gap between rich and poor is the widest it’s ever been, the pursuit of riches and the spirit of competition are encouraged and celebrated.”
Hessel final chapter calls for a “Peaceful Insurrection” and concludes by putting forward a charge for all of us today, one we should take seriously as we work for a better world built on the foundation of universally recognized human rights. In his final paragraphs he writes:
“How can I conclude this call for indignation?
“By reiterating that on the sixtieth anniversary of the Program of the National Council of the Resistance – March 8, 2004 – we, veterans of the Resistance who fought for Free France between 1940 and 1945, said the following: ‘Yes, Nazism was defeated, thanks to our brothers and sisters of the Resistance who sacrificed their lives, and thanks to the nations united in their opposition to fascist barbarity. But the threat persists; we are not entirely rid of it. And against injustice, our anger remains intact.
“Indeed, the threat persists. We therefore maintain our call for ‘a rebellion – peaceful and resolute – against the instruments of mass media that offer our young people a worldview defined by the temptations of mass consumption, a historical amnesia, and relentless competition of all against all.
“To the men and women who will make the twenty-first century, we say with affection:
“TO CREATE IS TO RESIST
TO RESIST IS TO CREATE”
Every day, rights guaranteed by US laws as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are violated against the people of the United States and around the world. Let us recognize that these rights are our inalienable rights and that only we can ensure that we have them. They will not be given to us; we must take them and be indignant in our constant demand that they be respected.
Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers are participants in PopularResistance.org. They also co-direct It’s Our Economy and are co-hosts of Clearing the FOG, shown on UStream TV and heard on radio. They tweet at @KBZeese and MFlowers8.