Full Employment: the “Supreme Law of the Land”


by David G. Gil, Professor of Social Policy and Director, Center for Social Change, Heller Graduate School, Brandeis University, and member of the Advisory Board of the National Jobs for All Coalition

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the Supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby,… (Article VI, U.S. Constitution) (emphasis added)

Fifty years ago, in 1945, the United States signed and ratified the Charter of the United Nations.  Ratification made the Charter a treaty binding on the United States, and thereby an integral part of the “Supreme Law of the Land,” according to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, quoted above.

In its prescriptions for the employment practices among its signatories, the Charter is clear and unambiguous.  Articles 55 and 56 of Chapter IX pledge member states to action in support of full employment and higher standards of living [see endnote 1 for relevant text of Articles 55 and 56]1.  These provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the U.N. Charter combine to set legal obligations for the U.S. government which it has to this date ignored.

Implicit in the “Full Employment” mandate of the United Nations Charter are several fundamental insights: that work is essential for human beings, to sustain life and to sustain its quality; that work is a major source of the real wealth of any society; that work is an inherent human need and thus ought to be acknowledged as a universal human right; and that exercise of this right, in a meaningful and self-directed manner, is essential for individual development, self-respect, social recognition, and a sense of belonging to one’s community and society.

These insights concerning the meaning of work for human life and social development are also reflected in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  adopted without dissent (three years after ratification of the U.N. Charter) on December 10, 1948.  Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that:

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration, ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

The United States played a major part in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee. The United States voted for the Declaration in the U.N. General Assembly. Although the United States has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which translates the Declaration into a treaty, we are legally bound, by virtue of our ratification commits member nations to promote “respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction.” This treaty obligation reinforces our governments direct duty under Articles 55 and 56 to promote full employment.

If the United States is, indeed, a “Government of Laws, Rather than of Men” [sic], it should live up to its obligation to promote “Higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development” as fundamental human rights for all its people.

The obligation to secure adequate gainful employment for their populations affects nations today more critically than was conceivable to the signers of the Charter: at that time there was a world to reconstruct.  Today joblessness has spread throughout all societies, and alarm about the social destructiveness of involuntary unemployment is common to those holding a wide range of political and social views.  Present trends, technological and others, are leading to a worsening state of affairs, so that the obligations of the signers of the UN Charter are more pressing than ever before.  Solutions are available through publicly sponsored, socially necessary production, and through redistribution of work by shortening individual work time.

In making their case, advocates should emphasize that Full Employment policies are mandated by the U.S Constitution and the United Nations Charter, which the United States is committed to uphold. They should also make clear that actions by the U.S. Government and by the Federal Reserve Bank to create involuntary unemployment to fight inflation are violations of international and human rights law.

While experts may differ on how such violations could be challenged legally, common sense suggests that the federal courts should be asked for remedies whenever official policies create rather than reduce unemployment.  Just as advocates of civil and political rights have sought, and secured, legal remedies against unconstitutional and unlawful practices by government agencies, so should advocates of full employment.

1. Article 55: With a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being,  the United Nations shall promote: (A) Higher standards of living, FULL EMPLOYMENT (emphasis added) and conditions of economic and social progress and development; (B) Solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems; (C) Universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion. Article 56:  All members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55.

Editor: June Zaccone, Economics (Emer.), Hofstra University