There is a growing debate on both sides of the Atlantic about whether a ‘job guarantee’ should be a fundamental human right. Should human beings (not human resources!) who want to work be entitled to good quality employment conditions in real living wage jobs in the system they labour under? Yes, they should!
But this requires new, more enlightened humanitarian government policies aimed at creating real full employment and eradicating working poverty, rather than crudely abandoning people to market forces and constructing an increasingly punitive workfare labour market and welfare state (i.e. the current dehumanising approach).
A job guarantee (JG) should seek to reorient labour market policy away from the current supply-side obsession with employability, whereby government and its agencies engage in training programs to prepare the unemployed for work, but without guaranteeing that work will actually be available. Instead, there needs to be targeted focus on matching skills with the creation of socially useful jobs in local communities; preferably paying a Real Living Wage. Governments need to set the standard for the good employer and responsible business, and a JG could set a labour market floor.
This is acutely important in forgotten regions of the UK and USA blighted by deindustrialisation, and where alienation at abandonment influenced voting patterns for Brexit and Trump. Democratic socialists and other progressives need a big policy idea like the JG that could make a material difference to peoples’ lives and stem the effluent discharge of populist nationalism, xenophobia and racism.
Sceptics might ask, why do we need a job guarantee when official unemployment is at such low levels (4.2% in UK in 2018)? Yet we need to unpick official unemployment data, and factor in rising underemployment since the 2008 financial crisis. Many new jobs are low quality and low-paid, or what Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’. There are also many people excluded from the formal labour market for multiple reasons.
The job guarantee has a long tortuous history, influenced by social justice traditions of a right to work, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the US Employment Act of 1946. An early JG was proposed by economist Hyman Minsky.
Current job guarantee ideas are more advanced in the USA, where the JG is being pushed by influential Democrats like Cory Booker, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders. Sanders’s JG plan would fund local projects throughout the United States aimed at addressing priorities like infrastructure, care, parks, the environment, and other community initiatives. It calls on the federal government to pay $15 an hour and offer health care and leave benefits. As well as providing permanent public sector jobs, it is envisaged that a JG scheme could boost wages for the low paid, and enhance bargaining power for workers not in trade unions. Therefore, a JG scheme can also comprise a wages programme to address wage stagnation after the 2008 financial crash.
Job gurantee policy debate is less advanced in the UK, but is gaining more attention. MP’s Frank Field and Sir Nicholas Soames are currently sponsoring a cross-party Employment Guarantee Bill in Parliament. The aim of the Bill is to introduce a new duty whereby the government guarantees six months’ paid work in the private, voluntary or public sector, for the long-term unemployed. However, while in its infancy, this British initiative is much less ambitious in scope than what Democrats are proposing in the USA, because it only targets the long-term unemployed for a six-month period. But at least it’s a start, and the JG is on the political radar.
Yet, a bold more radical new political economy of work is urgently needed that places job quality and job guarantees centre stage, as a part of a proper industrial strategy that repairs socially damaged communities. Strategy should focus on supporting indigenous socially useful community activities (‘the foundational economy’), rather than continue offering huge financial subsidies to large private corporations (‘the corporate welfare state’). The state (nationally and locally) should intervene in depressed (e.g. Brexit voting) regions to guarantee better jobs grounded in ‘foundational economy’ local community necessities such as health and social care, housing, transport, and green projects. To begin, a JG could be targeted and piloted in the most disadvantaged UK places.
In so doing, the state could facilitate new human-centred social contracts to stop extreme cases of profit/shareholder maximisation and labour exploitation. Responsible employers trading in local communities would comply with procurement rules embedding social responsibilities like good-quality secure jobs paying real living wages, good training, and, ideally, trade union rights to boost workers’ bargaining power.
One thing is clear on both sides of the Atlantic: Socialists, Democrats and other progressive allies need to advance big practical ideas like the JG, to counter-mobilise against their regressive right-wing opponents. Timidity does not work in an era of neo-liberalism, Trump, Brexit, corporate plutocracy, financialisation, and austerity.