“Proponents trace the idea back to the New Deal Era, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pitched a ‘Second Bill of Rights’ to Congress in 1944. First on the list: the ‘right to a useful and remunerative job.'”
With the goal of eliminating “working poverty and involuntary unemployment,” driving up wages, and curtailing income inequality, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is reportedly planning to introduce a federal jobs guarantee that would provide decent-paying employment to every American “who wants or needs” it.
“This is an opportunity for something transformative, beyond the tinkering we’ve been doing for the last 40 years, where all the productivity gains have gone to the elite of society.”
—Darrick Hamilton, The New School
First detailed by the Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein on Monday, Sanders’ plan would “fund hundreds of projects throughout the United States aimed at addressing priorities such as infrastructure, caregiving, the environment, education, and other goals.”
“Under the job guarantee, every American would be entitled to a job under one of these projects or receive job training to be able to do so, according to an early draft of the proposal,” Stein notes. “Proponents trace the idea back to the New Deal Era, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pitched a ‘Second Bill of Rights’ to Congress in 1944. First on the list: the ‘right to a useful and remunerative job.'”
In addition to providing workers with health benefits, Sanders’ proposal would also require that Americans employed by the federal program be paid at least $15 an hour, which supporters say would lift the wages of all workers by boosting competition with the private sector.
“The plan’s authors envision millions of Americans getting hired under the proposal,” Stein notes.
Darrick Hamilton, an economist at the New School in New York, lauded Sanders’ plan in an interview with the Washington Post, saying, “This is an opportunity for something transformative, beyond the tinkering we’ve been doing for the last 40 years, where all the productivity gains have gone to the elite of society.”
News of Sanders’ plan—which is still in the draft stage—comes as recent polling data has suggested that a federal jobs guarantee is immensely popular nationwide.
“We find that the job guarantee polls stunningly well in all 50 states,” Sean McElwee, Colin McAuliffe, and Jon Green of Data for Progress noted in a recent article for The Nation. “Even in the state with the lowest modeled support, Utah, support is still 57 percent. Deep-red states like West Virginia (62 percent support), Indiana (61 percent), and Kansas (67 percent) all boast strong support for a job guarantee.”
In addition to Sanders—who has also introduced legislation to guarantee healthcare to all Americans as a right—Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have also expressed support for a federal jobs guarantee.
“This is not a radical idea,” Hamilton concluded in an interview with the Post. “It was well-couched in the Democratic platform that existed during its heyday.”
A representative from Sanders’s office said they had not yet done a cost estimate for the plan or decided how it would be funded, saying they were still crafting the proposal.
Sanders joins two other rumored 2020 Democratic presidential contenders who have expressed support for the idea of a jobs guarantee. The push reflects a leftward move in the party’s economic policy, away from President Barack Obama’s use of public-private partnerships or government incentives to reshape private markets and toward an unambiguous embrace of direct government intervention.
Job guarantee advocates say their plan would drive up wages by significantly increasing competition for workers, ensuring that corporations have to offer more generous salaries and benefits if they want to keep their employees from working for the government. Supporters say it also would reduce racial inequality, because black workers face unemployment at about twice the rates of white workers, as well as gender inequality, because many iterations of the plan call for the expansion of federal child-care work.
“The goal is to eliminate working poverty and involuntary unemployment altogether,” said Darrick Hamilton, an economist at the New School who has advocated for a jobs guarantee program along with Stony Brook University’s Stephanie Kelton and a group of left-leaning economists at the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College. “This is an opportunity for something transformative, beyond the tinkering we’ve been doing for the last 40 years, where all the productivity gains have gone to the elite of society.”
Others, including some Democrats, are not convinced. The idea is also dead on arrival with Republicans in control of Congress, and conservatives have trashed the idea of a jobs guarantee as impractical, impossibly expensive and dangerous to the private sector.
“It completely undercuts a lot of industries and companies,” said Brian Riedl, of the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, a think tank. “There will be pressure to introduce a higher wage or certain benefits that the private sector doesn’t offer.”
Ernie Tedeschi, an economist who served in Obama’s Treasury Department, said there would be large logistical and practical challenges in ensuring millions of new federal jobs serve productive ends. “It would be extremely expensive, and I wonder if this is the best, most targeted use of the amount of money it would cost,” he said.
Critics point to potential unintended consequences in the plan. Although it would probably boost wages for workers, those higher wages could bump up costs for private businesses, leading some to hire fewer workers or take other steps — such as reducing benefits or looking to replace workers with machines.
These effects would be more pronounced if the plan were to pull away workers who hold private-sector jobs, rather than pulling in workers without jobs who wanted them. The unemployment rate currently sits at 4.1 percent, a historically low figure. But that figure does not include people who’ve given up looking for work, and the labor force participation rate — a broader measure of those not working — suggests there may be people not counted among the unemployed who would join the labor force.
The new government spending could also lead to inflation, decreasing the real value of workers’ wages.
Obama’s economic initiatives, generally, focused on using the government to influence private markets and industries in pursuit of policy goals. His economic stimulus plan — in which he and Democrats tried to pull the United States out of a deep recession — channeled money through private enterprises to boost hiring and investment, and offered tax cuts and rebates in the hope of getting people to spend more.
But in a new political climate, ideas such as a jobs guarantee plan is gaining traction among prominent Democrats. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) backed the idea on Twitter earlier this month. As first reported by Vox, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) last week also announced his intention to introduce a separate bill that would create a pilot program for a job guarantee in 15 rural and urban areas.
Under the early draft of Sanders’s job guarantee, local, state and American Indian tribe governments in every section of the country would send proposals for public works projects for their areas to 12 regional offices that encompass the country. These 12 regional offices would act as a clearinghouse for these projects, tasked with sending recommended projects to a new national office within the Labor Department office for final approval.
Once approved, the projects would hire workers at a minimum salary of $15 an hour with paid family and medical leave, and offer the same retirement, health, and sick and annual leave benefits as other federal employees.
About 2,500 job training center and employment offices already exist around the country, and the plan imagines tasking them with connecting workers to these local projects. When the programs are up and running, anyone can wander into a job center and — at least, in theory — find either job training or a job on one of these projects.
The plan’s authors envision millions of Americans being hired under the proposal, with the number going up during economic recessions in the private sector and down during economic booms. They also say it would significantly increase the government’s involvement in the American economy to a level not seen since World War II, if ever in the country’s history.
Beyond how to pay for the plan, many other aspects of the jobs guarantee have not been specified.
It’s not clear what would happen to a worker who violated the terms of employment. The plan suggests creating a Division of Progress Investigation to “take disciplinary action if needed,” leaving authority to the head of the Labor Department. Aides to Sanders stress that the policy details remain in their initial stages.
Proponents trace the idea to the New Deal era, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt pitched a “Second Bill of Rights” to Congress in 1944. First on the list: the “right to a useful and remunerative job.”
“This is not a radical idea,” Hamilton said. “It was well-couched in the Democratic platform that existed during its heyday. I’m glad Democrats are trending back to their roots.”
At the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., rays of sunlight break through an unseasonably cold March, through the ordered, brutalist buildings that line Pennsylvania Avenue. Hundreds of thousands of people crowd the avenue, just as they have been crowding legislators’ phone lines and email inboxes in recent weeks. On a stage strategically positioned in line with the Capitol building, 17-year-old Cameron Kasky, a Parkland shooting survivor, delivers this proclamation:
To the leaders, skeptics, and cynics who told us to sit down and stay silent, wait your turn: Welcome to the revolution. It is a powerful and peaceful one because it is of, by, and for the young people of this country. Since this movement began some people have asked me, do you think any change is going to come from this? Look around, we are the change. Our voices are powerful, and our votes matter. We hereby promise to fix the broken system we’ve been forced into and to create a better world for the generations to come. Don’t worry, we’ve got this.
Kasky’s statement was, of course, about guns. Seventeen of his classmates and teachers had been taken from him, and from their families, friends, and their own futures, five weeks earlier by a gunman who used an automatic weapon to kill 17 people in 6 minutes and 20 seconds. But they were also taken by a system—a political system wherein a vast majority of Americans, and particularly young Americans, support policies to clamp down on gun deaths but politicians, bought off by the NRA, do not listen.
Young people are at a tipping point. They are frustrated by a system whose cracks were etched into place by preceding generations, but have only fully metastasized for theirs. They experience suffocating levels of student debt alongside declining wages and income equality while watching companies monopolize entire industries, and sometimes even nationwide elections. Representation—actual representation—feels more like theory than reality.
People are, finally, beginning to take notice of young people’s activism to fix that system. However, many are mistaking the new wave of media coverage dedicated to young people’s political activism for young people’s newfound political activism. It’s not that young people were ever politically dormant; it’s just that their activism has existed in places where older generations aren’t used to looking: on college campuses, like the Know Your IX movement and tuition equity campaigns for undocumented students, and inside activist movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #ByeAnita and #Occupy.
Young people’s activism has existed in places where older generations aren’t used to looking
And now, increasingly, unions.
For the first time in decades, union membership is on the rise among young people. Historically, younger people have not been unionized, and their rates of union membership trail older adults by wide margins. But, just like the gun laws that are already being amended, that too is beginning to change.
According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), in 2017, there were 262,000 new union members in the United States. Seventy-five percent of this increase came from young people (which EPI considers those aged 34 and under, but for the purposes of this article, broadly refers to the older subset of Generation Z and most Millennials, ages 16 to 35). Young people also hold the most favorable attitudes towards labor of any generation, and their support for political parties skews heavily towards those that support pro-worker policies (like standing against “right-to-work” laws), including the Democrats and, increasingly, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
But for some reason, unlike previous generations, young people’s workplace organizing isn’t seen as an integral part of their organizing, writ large. While plenty of people are documenting the rise of young people’s union membership and plenty more describing young people’s leadership in activist spaces, what’s missing is the idea that these two phenomena are actually one: Young people are turning to outside outlets that allow them to exercise their politics in the wake of a political system that, by and large, does not.
In a piece for Jacobin Magazine, Micah Uetrich sketches out the ebbing relationship between democracy inside and outside the workplace, and, relatedly, the relationship between economic and political democracy. To Uetrich—a sociology graduate student who focuses on labor, member of the DSA, and associate editor at Jacobin—activism is activism, whether it takes place at the workplace or outside of it. “It’s a relatively recent development that we think of what happens at work as some kind of separate sphere of our lives in general,” he says. He adds: “Young people understand that and don’t like living in a dictatorship in the place where they spend 8 or 10 hours of their day.”
Uetrich experienced something similar at his first job out of college, when he worked as a cashier at an airport making minimum wage. He says he and his co-workers were treated as less than human on a daily basis, and they eventually decided to unionize, granting him a newfound sense of agency: “I had never felt as powerless as I did when I was a cashier making minimum wage. Conversely, I had never felt as powerful as I did when I joined with my co-workers, confronted my boss, and won.”
That fact—that unionization campaigns often center around not simply better wages or benefits, but a sense that your voice will be heard—often goes misunderstood by those who are not connected to the labor movement. But for Uetrich, who went on to become a union organizer, the idea of worker voice, even if it’s to voice complaints about stagnant pay or subpar health benefits, is not simply one benefit of unions; it is the benefit. “The thing that you learn immediately as an organizer,” he tells me, “is that even in low-wage workplaces, the number one issue people have with their workplaces is not their low wages but a lack of respect.”
A lack of respect is also primarily driving young people’s frustration with the political system. When Kasky, the 17-year-old Parkland survivor, spoke at the March for Our Lives, he said “our voices are powerful, and our votes matter.” He said that in contrast to the status quo, in which young people’s voices are not seen as powerful, nor their votes. And, looking at recent history, it’s not hard to understand why that might be Kasky’s understanding of the status quo. Young people’s votes were spurned by an electoral college that favors rural, sparse areas, disproportionately discounting the large numbers of young people who lived in cities in 2016. Their ideas of stronger restrictions on guns, reigning in big banks, and support for the rights of LGBTQ people, immigrants, people of color, and people of varying religious views have been continually overpowered by older generations and special interests.
Seen through that lens, it’s no wonder young people have found working inside the U.S. political system ineffective, and, quite frankly, not worth their time. Instead, young people have redirected their activism toward different kinds of outlets, where their efforts may actually bring about tangible results. Outlets like unions.
What does this mean for the labor movement? A workplace is, at the most fundamental level, a microcosm of the political system. There are those who hold power, the bosses, and those who don’t, the workers. Over time, the balance of power ebbs and flows; when unions are strong, the balance shifts more heavily to the workers, and when unions are weak, the balance favors the bosses. When unions are powerful, workers have something akin to a voice in the direction of their workplace. And when unions are at their most powerful, workers have something akin to a voice in the direction of their country, a counterbalance to special interest groups like ALEC or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Julia Ackerly is working to build unions up to that level. Now 27, she’s worked on Democratic campaigns for most of her adult life: She worked as a field organizer and regional field director for the Bernie Sanders campaign in the 2016 primary elections, and then for Larry Krasner’s bid to be Philadelphia’s District Attorney (DA), a race that drew national attention for how Krasner sought to use the DA position to enact a progressive vision for the criminal justice system. Ackerly has always worked on campaigns that worked closely with organized labor. But she had never been in a union herself.
That changed when the Campaign Workers’ Guild (CWG) formed. The idea behind the CWG is pretty simple: It hopes to unionize campaign staffers, who experience harsh working conditions where poor pay and benefits and long hours run rampant, justified by managers as sacrifices for an important cause. CWG is currently organizing campaigns one-by-one: Its first successful organizing campaign was that of Randy Bryce, the candidate hoping to win House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Congressional seat, and it’s organized 10 more campaigns since, for a total of 11 as of March 2018. But it ultimately hopes to organize entire parties’ campaign staffs at once in the future.
“Everyone needs an outlet for activism.”
Ackerly, who helps organize campaign staffs and is now a dues-paying member of CWG herself, says that having a collective ability to be heard and respected in the workplace is a “very motivating factor towards unionization campaigns.” She singles out creating protocol and reporting structures for sexual harassment and discrimination as one of the biggest motivations staff members have for organizing. Which, tellingly, is also the one of the biggest activist movements dominating living room and water cooler conversations across the country as the #MeToo movement continues.
Young people dominate the junior staffs on campaigns and have also made up a significant portion of the driving force behind recently organized campaign staffs, according to Ackerly. Jake Johnston, the Vice President of Organizing for the Non-Profit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) (which includes some members of the TalkPoverty staff), has similarly seen young people take the lead at the organizations that have recently organized under NPEU, and at NPEU itself.
For Johnston, collective action has implicit ties to activism, writ large. “The reality is that our political system really has cut out a significant part of this country. I think there’s clearly a rejection of the status quo, and yet there are so few avenues to try and change that,” he says. “Whether it’s joining the DSA, joining a union, joining an advocacy campaign, or joining an electoral campaign, people are trying to change that. Everyone needs an outlet for activism.”
That’s true for young people in particular. For far too long, they’ve been on the receiving end of an economic and political system that does not work for them, while being denied the opportunity to change that system.
Whether it’s students like Cameron Kasky shouting about the NRA into a microphone that reverberates from the Capitol to the White House, young people like Julia Ackerly organizing an industry that has never been unionized before, or activists like Micah Uetrich organizing his own workplace, young people are refusing to take part in a political system that has consistently and methodically drowned out their voice. Instead, they’ve taken their voices elsewhere, to outlets like unions and activist movements where—finally—their voices are being heard.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) followed the lead of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Monday when she announced that she would reject donations from corporate PACs, just a few weeks after a town hall attendee pointedly questioned her about her stance on such contributions.
On the New York-based radio show “The Breakfast Club,” host Charlamagne Tha God asked Harris about the exchange she had with a constituent in Sacramento, who asked her if she would take money from political action committees representing corporate interests. When Harris told the audience member, “It depends,” he replied, “Wrong answer.”
“I think that money has had such an outside influence on politics,” said Harris on Monday, two weeks after the exchange garnered attention. “…We’re all supposed to have an equal vote, but money has now really tipped the balance between an individual having equal power in an election to a corporation. So I’ve actually made a decision since I had that conversation that I’m not going to accept corporate PAC checks.”
Harris is the fifth Democratic senator who’s been repeatedly named as a likely 2020 presidential contender to announce that she’ll forswear corporate money—a sign, some progressives said Monday, that the rejection of such contributions is rapidly becoming a prerequisite for candidacy.
The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur, co-founder of the Justice Democrats, said the progressive PAC deserved credit for the wave of 2020 frontrunners who have been pressured into promising not to take corporate cash. The Justice Democrats last year demanded that candidates pledge to reject such donations, and is so far endorsing more than 50 candidates who have agreed to take the pledge for 2018.