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As left-wing economic policy proposals go, a federal job guarantee has never quite reached prime time status, despite the fact that the underlying idea has been around since at least 1944, when President Franklin Roosevelt proposed it as part of his “Economic Bill of Rights.” Now, with Democrats in control of the federal government and as the nation tries to emerge from the economic devastation of the pandemic, a progressive coalition led by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D‑Mass.) is attempting to push a job guarantee into the political mainstream.
Two weeks ago, Pressley introduced a resolution in Congress calling on the federal government to create a job guarantee program, run through the Labor Department, that would provide a job to anyone who wants one. (The fact that she introduced a resolution rather than a bill is a sign that this is just the beginning of a long process of building political support.) She frames the job guarantee as a powerful racial justice policy, citing the work of Sadie Alexander, the first black economics Ph.D. in America; of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who called for a job guarantee more than 50 years ago; and of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, who both championed the idea.
“The March on Washington has been, for most, just defined by the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. But it was a march for jobs and freedom,” Pressley said. “It’s time, if we’re really serious about a reckoning, that we enter into a third reconstruction to truly have a robust and just recovery from this pandemic, and a federal job guarantee should be a part of that. Economic justice is racial justice.”
Pressley’s proposal would provide jobs paying at least $15 an hour, and offering standard benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave. She floats a number of examples of projects that could be accomplished by people employed in the program, including child and senior care, added school staffing, infrastructure and community projects, disaster relief, environmental sustainability work, and a revival of the WPA’s Depression-era public employment projects for artists and writers. While other grand economic reforms, like universal basic income, are often presented as replacements for our current structure of government benefits, Pressley is emphatic that the jobs guarantee would be purely an expansion — ”a supplement to, not a substitute for” — our current social safety net and unemployment insurance.
One alluring quality of a job guarantee is that it could fit snugly together with almost any other progressive priority. Its army of workers could improve public education and public healthcare. It could serve as the jobs program for Green New Deal projects. And given the correlation of poverty, unemployment and race in America, it would automatically have the effect of attacking the economic inequities that have only been exacerbated by the job losses and health impacts of coronavirus.
“We just saw those very sobering jobs numbers come out. And they really prove the old adage: That when white America gets a cold, black folks get pneumonia,” Pressley said. “That is as literal as it is metaphorical. It’s true when it comes to Covid. It’s true when it comes to how our economy works.”
A federal job guarantee would effectively serve to set the floor on the labor market — private employers would have to raise their pay and benefits to match or exceed those of the government in order to attract any employees. Seen in this light, it could be extremely attractive to labor unions: They would no longer have to fight to win anything less than what was provided by the government’s own jobs.
“If you do a job guarantee correctly, and you build in certain requirements, you are setting a standard. It’s a little bit like having a minimum wage. You’ve got to lift the floor to raise the roof. You don’t want to have to be competing with the absolute lowest standard of work,” says Sara Nelson, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants and a vocal supporter of the policy. “What you legislate, you don’t have to negotiate.”
Many unions spend time and effort fighting for diversity and against discrimination in the workplace, but Nelson points out that Pressley’s policy could stamp much of this discrimination in one fell swoop. “If you have an assumed rate of unemployment, that means you are not selecting people for certain jobs. And that gives room for discrimination,” Nelson says. A policy eliminating that accepted unemployment rate “doesn’t give any space for discrimination. It helps to close that racial and gender gap.”
Nelson also points out that the federal job guarantee could be another way to achieve some of the provisions of the PRO Act—a bill that would radically improve America’s current labor laws and is a top priority of unions, but which is unlikely to pass in Congress unless the filibuster is done away with. The prospect of using a job guarantee to raise labor standards that have languished for decades could be an attractive incentive for organized labor to flock to the issue as its profile grows.
As the public perception of what is “radical” continues to shift, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that a job guarantee could be the rare policy that naturally unites labor, environmentalists and racial justice activists all at once. Still, it will not advance in Washington without answering the inevitable “How will you pay for it?” question. The economist Darrick Hamilton estimated in 2015 that a federal job guarantee would have an all-in cost of around $50,000 per job — $750 billon to employ the 15 million unemployed at the peak of the Great Recession, though far less during normal years. That is a large number, but it is comparable to the U.S. defense budget, and less than half of the current coronavirus relief bill now making its way through Congress.
Considering the far-reaching economic and social benefits that the elimination of unwanted unemployment would provide, that might be a bargain. And, as Pressley points out, the cost is a matter of perspective. “The reality,” she says, “is that we’re already paying for not having this policy.”
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.