In recent years, people who would have called themselves liberals in this country have begun to call themselves progressive. This column, for instance, is called The Progressive and not the Liberal. Although I feel no shame if I were called liberal, I believe my political instincts go back to the Progressive movement of the early part of the last century. This movement was led by men who believed that government had a role to play in safeguarding the health and wealth of the American people against the evils of corporate malfeasance and misfeasance. Theodore Roosevelt considered himself a progressive. Woodrow Wilson considered himself a progressive. Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt considered themselves progressives. In Wisconsin there was a political party that called itself Progressive. To some extent, the movement was bipartisan.
Last month was Social Worker Recognition month. During the period of the progressive movement the social work profession began. Many Americans view social work in a negative light. Although social work professionals do yeoman work in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, adoption agencies, and in the enforcement of welfare programs and this labor often has a positive effect on the larger community, social workers and progressives are viewed in a negative light. Hull House in Chicago was established when the progressive movement was in vogue.
My beloved wife Louisa is a social worker. Her dedication to her clients is extraordinary and admirable. Any attacks on social work are attacks on a profession that helps people. Corporations see the need for the profession when Employee Assistance Programs are in place in the workplace. Unfortunately, these types of programs and corrective discipline in the workplace are generally in the workplace only if the business is unionized or to prevent litigation.
The Progressive movement was a movement that believed in fair trade practices within the country and outside the borders. The Progressives of this nation believed in the market economy. At the same time progressives did not accept extremes in wealth and poverty. Progressives today desire a guaranteed safety net, minimum wage legislation, and universal medical care. We support living wage campaigns. We believe in capital improvements to the infrastructure of the country.
Free universal education for all citizens was a goal of Progressives in the past. Many states began or increased free institutions of higher education during this period of time. City University, which has many illustrious alumni, was begun during this period. It is sad that free higher education is not available today. During the Progressive period there was a gigantic migration of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Many were from southern Italy or were Jews. Many progressives (albeit not all) were concerned about their assimilation and the horrible conditions of their employment and housing. There was a belief that labor organizations (unions) would alleviate the unsafe working conditions that were caused by our nation’s rapid industrialization. There was also more concerned about health conditions in our nation’s cities. Departments of Health were established to prevent communicable diseases and epidemics. Research was encouraged. Regulation over essential industry by government to prevent the excess of the unrestricted marketplace were initiated and enforced.
Progressives are similar to many Americans and are people of faith and of the Book. Many believe the Bible teaches we have an obligation to do the work of Divine Providence on earth. At the same time, progressives believe government funds are not to be used to promote any particular religious belief. Progressives believe the government has no role in private matters. Our private religious beliefs should influence our political and economic ideals but no political party in this country should be an arm of any particular religious faction.
If is fair to say many people during the Progressive era who considered themselves a part of the movement were racist, anti-Semitic and anti Catholic. The ugly eugenic movement was also a part of the Progressive movement. During the Great Depression of the 1930s the New Deal used the foundation of the Progressive Movement to electrify the South, encouraged fair labor practices and unionization, establish old age survivor and disability insurance called social security, establish a federally supervised state run unemployment insurance system, and programs to build roads, schools, and hospitals all around the nation. This put many to work and all around this nation there are many facilities still used that were built during that period. Many public libraries in this city were built during this period. Conservation of natural resources was part of the Progressive movement. Conservation of species and the establishment of national parks and wilderness areas were a legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. During the New Deal many local parks in cities were established or enhanced through the Work Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.
In recent years the radical right that now controls the Republican Party in this country have allowed corporate interests to run amuck over the interests of the American people. Our constitution allows the government to take public property for a designated “public use” after paying the owner of the property. This is called eminent domain and confirms that although property and capital are protected the welfare of the larger community takes precedence over self-interest. Recently, local governments have used the eminent domain provision to tear down working class homes so a big corporation could build a headquarters. This is occurring in New London, Connecticut. The argument is that the headquarters will bring jobs and increased tax revenue to the town. The issue is now in the Supreme Court. Our present court is now in the hands of conservatives and I fear for the outcome of the case. The interests of inhabitants of neighborhoods will be overruled by the needs of corporations in the name of development. I doubt a special session of Congress will be held to save homeowners from the grasping corporations and their political minions. Government should be our servant and not our master. Government in need of tax revenue will be able to give corporations what they need including our homes if New London wins the case of Kelo vs. City of New London.
The larger issue is the role of government in the marketplace. The two-worker family is now the norm because a single wage earner cannot support a family. Jobs need to be developed that ensure a standard of living that Americans are accustomed to. The real wages of American workers have decreased while the unions in this country are losing membership and power. Health benefits are costly and are no longer considered part of the covenant between worker and employer. In fact, employers are avoiding hiring and only using independent contractors. Public education is unequal and depends on where the person lives. Increasingly, the gap between the wealthy and poor is growing. We are becoming a nation of have mores and have little. Can this nation survive an unregulated marketplace? On January 26, 2005 the New York Times reported that the Human Rights Watch issued a report saying the meat packing industry in the United States violated basic human rights because of poor working conditions. In the industry there were 20 injuries per 100 workers in 2001. The report spoke of asphyxiation by fumes from decaying matter, and legs being cut off and hands crushed. Enron is proof that our corporate leaders do not have the larger community’s interests as part of their culture. We need a Progressive movement now. We need to build on the New Deal and not destroy it. If the radical Republicans have their way social security would be privatized, private home ownership would be a luxury of the powerful and wealthy, a quality education would depend on your family’s wealth and you would be free to contract yourself for starvation wages without health care benefits and your workplace employer would not be burdened by health and safety regulations. Does anyone remember the electricity crisis California had when the regulation set during the Progressive era were deregulated? Does anyone remember that ergonomic regulations were deregulated because of Tom Delay? Some in congress gave him the nickname of Tom Dereg. The president of National Workrights Institute Lewis Maltby said discriminatory genetic testing in the workplace is looming. It is clear we need a new progressive movement today.
There are some local politicians who are still progressive. My friend and city council member Robert Jackson has introduced legislation that would require residential developers who have accepted tax incentives to pay the prevailing union wages. We need more politicians like Robert Jackson.