Bruce Springsteen on the Right to a Job
“People deserve the right to work, and when you rob someone of that right, you’re robbing them of an enormous part of their life. The entrepreneurial vision has taken our country a long way, but it’s done so on the backs of lot of working people who’ve gotten stiffed in the end. So at some point–and we may be reaching that point–that vision may have run its course. When the manufacturing jobs disappear, is the new economy going to produce enough jobs for the people who need work out there? I don’t know. And I think it’s the responsibility not just of the government, but all of us, to make sure no one is left out.”
The Coalition’s Founding Conference in June 1994 was full of hope even though we had no staff, no office, no money. On June 17 we celebrated our fourth anniversary. In addition to launching Jobs for All Season we gave thanks to three of the “angels” whose invaluable support has helped establish the only national organization dedicated solely to pursuing the full employment ideal: Rhoda Karpatkin, President of Consumers Union, Ward Morehouse, President of the Council on International and Public Affairs and Rev. Charles Rawlings, director of the Urban Initiatives Program of the National Council of Churches.
Prior to establishing the Coalition, its founders spent seven years developing their plan for full employment in a global, late 20th century economy. As veterans of the disappointing struggle for full employment two decades ago (culminating in the largely symbolic Humphrey-Hawkins full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978) we realized that to achieve jobs for all at decent pay we must build popular support and a powerful social movement to change the nation’s economic priorities. The Coalition is prepared to wage the struggle for its widespread acceptance and enactment. If we are to go beyond symbolic achievement, this ideological and organizational push must precede the inevitable legislative struggle.
The Coalition has used its resources to reconceptualize full employment and tailor it to contemporary economic and political realities. The Right’s successful mobilization to persuade the public to accept its agenda underscores the critical importance of work done by intellectuals. In the short, pithy pieces that comprise our Uncommon Sense series (now 20 in number), in our newsletter, our speeches, letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, position papers and scholarly articles, members of the Coalition are taking on the ideological challenge.
Why Full Employment
We believe that full employment is necessary for the amelioration of many social ills which have become the focus of single issue advocacy organizations. Problems such as crime, substance abuse and domestic violence, among others, would be much easier to solver if there were jobs for all at decent wages.
Fair Work, Not Workfare
We were among the first to condemn welfare “reform” and call for its repeal, we have seized the opportunity presented by its harsh work requirements to demonstrate the chronic shortage of jobs for welfare recipients, as well as millions of other men and women, and to encourage welfare advocates to become full employment advocates. The Coalition consistently emphasizes the difference between “workfare” and fair work, and we condemn work requirements for welfare recipients in the absence of sufficient employment opportunities, decent wages and availability of affordable, quality child care. The debate and protest over implementation of welfare repeal has had the paradoxical effect of stimulating interest in job creation at an unlikely time, a period of declining unemployment.
The Coalition currently targets its limited resources on the ideological battleground. Affiliates such as Ohio’s Miami Valley Unemployed Committee and the Campaign to Abolish Poverty/Full Employment Action Coalition [San Francisco] engage in direct organizing.
The labor and minority rights movements are natural allies and potential sources of substantial support for full employment. A new issue ofUncommon Sense, “Why Unions Matters, Why Full Employment Matters to Unions,” by Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Harvard University Trade Union Program, will help us to reach more trade unionists. Advisory Board member Manning Marable wrote “Full Employment and Affirmative Action” (Uncommon Sense #7, October 1995) which the Coalition is currently mailing to hundreds of persons who have been prominent in the struggle for affirmative action.
The Full Employment Vision
The full employment vision encompasses the goals of the diverse organizations that constitute the progressive movement. The Coalition’s goal is a just, decent society – one in which the highest priority is assigned to meeting human needs. Our vision includes social and economic equality, affordable housing, nutritious and safe food, a clean environment, enough time for leisure and learning, the opportunity to develop and exercise one’s skills and the social connections that come through work.
Jobless workers meet neither the infrastructure nor human service needs of our nation. Unemployment means the nation is throwing away potential output and harming unemployed people and their families. Full employment expands output and enhances individual lives. As we move into our fifth year, the Coalition is committed to helping progressives, as well as mainstream America, to recognize the incalculable value of jobs for all at decent wages.
The benefits of economic expansion are not fairly distributed. While the richest five percent of families watched the value of their investments soar in recent years, even with wages edging slightly upward recently, the average American worker still earns considerably less per hour (adjusted for inflation) than in the early 1970s. Low-wage workers have been especially hard hit. A new Campaign for a Fair Minimum Wage, spearheaded by Americans for Democratic Action, a Coalition affiliate, could bring some relief.
A modest two-step increase enacted in 1996 lifted the minimum wage from $4.25 an hour to its current $5.15 an hour. A single parent of two who works at the minimum wage full-time for the entire year earns only $10,700–$2600 less than the government’s meager poverty standard for a three-person family. To equal its 1968 peak buying power, the minimum hourly wage would have to be $7.33.
President Clinton recently proposed raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour in two steps. Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. David Bonior introduced identical bills to do just that. S1805 and HR3510 have 21 Senate and 122 House co-sponsors so far. Sixteen prominent economists, including Nobel Laureate Lawrence R. Klein and six Coalition Advisory Board members, wrote to the President that “Billions in added consumer demand helped fuel our economy….Given the nation’s unemployment rate and the strong economy, now is the time to deepen our commitment to a decent minimum wage.”
Opponents of the 1996 raise predicted that a higher minimum wage would fuel inflation and have a negative impact on employment. Actually, after the raise, employment increased while the unemployment and inflation rates declined.
Kennedy’s legislation was defeated in September but the Campaign will continue. So far, more than 60 organizations, including the Coalition, have joined the Campaign for a Fair Minimum Wage.
Contact Jane O’Grady, Executive Director, Campaign for a Fair Minimum Wage, 202-785-5980
When the President proposed to “end welfare as we know it,” the Coalition warned that unless good jobs at living wages were assured, this proposal would prove a fraud, inflicting enormous harm on mothers and small children for whom the welfare program–Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC)–was an indispensable lifeline. Significant harm has already been done to these families, although a booming economy and the law’s timetable have not yet revealed the full extent of the damage.
A recent headline reads: “Competition is Fierce for Welfare-to-Work Jobs Even in the Booming Midwest”. The story reports a study done at Northwestern Illinois University showing two to four applicants for each low-skill job in six Midwestern states, and a ratio of job-seekers to jobs “much higher for entry level jobs that would support a family of three.”
New York City’s official unemployment rate was 8.9 percent in January 1998, almost double the national rate of 4.7 percent. New York’s rate was higher than Los Angeles, Chicago, or Miami. In New York City, nearly nine out of ten young black men (aged 16 to 19) are without gainful employment, up from 35 percent in 1967. The city’s program focuses on cutting welfare rolls and forcing welfare mothers into the “workfare” program, the largest such program in the nation with 42,000 participants in mid-1998, and climbing. The city refuses to estimate how many people forced off the roles found jobs. In this labor market it is nearly impossible to place welfare mothers, and the city officials know it. And the official US unemployment level conceals more than it reveals:
- Millions of full-time workers–including one in four women–earned less than the poverty line for a family of four.
- One in four young black men is in prison, on parole or on probation.
- Stagnant real earnings for the great majority of working people are below levels reached twenty-five years ago.
- Continuing large-scale corporate downsizing directly affects many experienced workers and builds insecurity and anxiety among the millions more not yet affected. Many of those who lose these jobs remain unemployed; more find work at lower earning levels.
- Fifteen million people in the US today either want jobs and don’t have them or are forced to work fewer hours than they want and need to. Some are discouraged and have stopped looking. Others would work if jobs were more plentiful. Job growth is what the Clinton administration boasts about, but the rate of growth remains well below what it was during the first quarter century after World War II.
In order to illustrate the extent of the problem, the Coalition organized a successful campaign which persuaded Congress to fund Job Vacancy Surveys in selected labor markets, including those with large numbers on welfare. Once this work is done, we believe that the evidence will be irrefutable. The number of available jobs which pay a living wage and provide job security and decent benefits is far below the number of people being required to seek work as a condition of continued eligibility for income support. Public understanding of this contradiction is essential to building a movement to amend or repeal a law that former Administration official Peter Edelman called “Clinton’s worst mistake.” In the meantime there are important steps that people can demand of governments–state, local and federal:
- no work requirements for income support unless job availability is assured;
- direct government job creation, using the funds that the law provides for “welfare to work;”
- full protection under the labor laws for workfare participants: the right to organize, health and safety protection, paid holidays and vacations, unemployment compensation, workers compensation, and minimum wage;
- access to education for those qualified and reinstatement of workfare participants forced out of college classrooms;
- an end to displacement of regular employees by workfare participants;
- adequate child care.
These are demands that can be made on state and local governments wherever welfare ‘reform’ is being carried out. In New York and many other places the objective conditions are clear–the jobs are not there for these mothers of small children. The Coalition will provide back-up materials and support for your efforts to disseminate information and to organize. Please tell us what is being done in your area in the name of ‘reform’ so that we can build greater national awareness and unity to oppose this destructive and fraudulent program.
I spent mid-January in a small town in Northern Sweden. Therese Rajaniemi, a Coalition Advisory Board member, had invited me to speak at the founding conference of the Swedish Alliance for Jobs, a once unimaginable organization of the unemployed.
As recently as 1990, Sweden had a commitment to full employment, less than 2 percent unemployment, a budget surplus and an unassailable welfare state. But internationalization of Swedish capital and European Union membership changed policies: draconian budget cuts, slashed benefits and mass unemployment became the norm. (See reprint of my “Sweden: Fall From Grace.”)
In 1996, 32-year old Therese, an unemployed mother of four, organized and led grass roots demonstrations that got extensive media coverage. Until then, protest was generally expressed through dissension within unions and the Social Democratic Party — and by an exodus from that party. Returning to power in 1994, it had continued Conservative austerity policies.
Most conference attendees represented small local networks of the unemployed who hope to build a popular movement for full employment. My new Swedish friends, eager for information about US unemployment and the Coalition, were grateful for our publications.
Unemployment remains a hot issue. So despite the Alliance’s small size and lack of establishment ties, top politicians from all parties as well as labor leaders participated in a debate, covered by media, with Alliance leaders, who stressed their desire for real jobs, not special programs for the unemployed.
I can’t predict the future of the Alliance. But what could be more important in Sweden — or in the United States — than keeping issues like unemployment and the need for jobs for all on center stage?