By Wade Lee Hudson
Two-thirds of the American people agree. As a society, we “ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.” Most Americans also believe the minimum wage should be high enough to enable workers to avoid poverty.
We know how to guarantee every worker a living-wage job opportunity. We can do it easily. There is no good reason not to do it.
When the opportunity to secure a living-wage job is guaranteed, everyone will benefit. The positive effects will ripple throughout society:
- Business owners will benefit from a more prosperous economy.
- Most workers will benefit from higher wages, because employers will pay more to keep trained employees.
- Many workers will be treated with more respect by employers, because workers will have more choices.
- Everyone will benefit from living in a more harmonious, safer society.
- People currently living in poverty will lift themselves out of poverty.
- We can take better care of the environment without worrying about its impact on the economy.
It’s hard to imagine any quickly achievable reform that would be more beneficial. To gain that goal, we need to build the embryonic full employment movement. The seeds of that movement have already been planted. Now we need to grow it and develop the grassroots pressure that is needed to be successful.
A full employment movement could be based on the following principles.
A Broad Alliance
Assuring a living-wage job opportunity is a policy embraced by individuals with widely different political views because it is a principle that blends valid beliefs from varied perspectives.
We can achieve full employment:
- Without increasing the size of the federal government. Rather, the federal government can send money to local governments (where citizens have more impact) to hire public-service workers to meet pressing social and environmental needs.
- Primarily by creating private-sector jobs. Initial funding of public-service jobs will increase consumer demand, which will boost the economy. Then, in the upward spiral that follows, private businesses will steadily hire more workers.
- Without increasing the deficit. A small tax on unproductive, dangerous Wall Street speculation can generate the money needed to jump start a federally funded jobs program. Thereafter, we can hire more workers with increased revenues resulting from a stronger economy, as well as savings from reduced spending on unemployment insurance and food stamps.
- Without increasing dependency on the government. We can’t guarantee a job, but we can guarantee a job opportunity. Some people will choose not to work (for various reasons) and others won’t show up on time and work hard (and should be fired). But those individuals are few, and they can make it on their own or with other sources of support, including private charity.
- Without creating “make work” jobs. Almost everyone wants to work and has some useful skill. We can hire the unemployed and give them on-the-job training if needed to rebuild our infrastructure and meet neglected social and environmental needs. They can provide after-school recreation, make park improvements, help clean up the environment, and serve as nursing home staff, in-home caregivers, teacher aides, and substance abuse counselors.
- By affirming a “mixed economy.” Some ideologues always attack capitalism and promote government programs. Others always attack the government and promote capitalism. But most Americans recognize that we need a mixed economy, with both a strong government and a vigorous free market. Sending federal money to hire workers to meet needs that the private sector cannot meet (because there’s no profit in it) is an example of the common sense pragmatism we need.
Most individuals could do more to improve their situation. Self-improvement is valuable and needs to be supported. But if every unemployed person redoubled their efforts to become more employable, there still wouldn’t be enough jobs to go around. And most people can’t start a new business on their own. The jobs market is like a game of musical chairs. So long as there aren’t enough jobs, workers are going to be unjustifiably unemployed.
Some people believe that unskilled workers 18 or over don’t deserve a living wage (current law establishes a “youth minimum wage” that treats 16- and 17-year-old workers differently). They say these workers need to gain experience and boost their skills before they can expect to earn more. And some people believe that being forced to work at poverty-level wages and face the threat of homelessness serves to motivate people to strengthen their skills.
But opening this door is dangerous. Once opened, it can easily be opened ever wider – as is happening now with our shrinking middle class. And even with a minimal living wage, most workers will still be motivated to improve their situation by enhancing their skills.
Every adult who holds down a job should earn enough to make ends meet at a minimally decent level. No human being should be considered disposable and lose the freedom to fulfill their potential. Moreover, the threat of poverty constrains everyone’s liberty, if only because when we see others being oppressed and we have a heart, we are compelled to try to help eliminate that oppression. So long as one of us is not free, none of us are free.
We don’t like to see homeless people and beggars on the street. It gnaws at our conscience, making us wonder whether we should be doing more to help. But let’s not relieve our conscience by blaming the victims of our economy and yelling, “Go get a job.” With Jesus, let’s love our neighbor as we love ourselves. With Buddha, let’s avoid both self-sacrifice and selfishness.
Focus on Morality
Securing the human right to a living-wage job opportunity is a moral imperative. Achieving that goal should be the fundamental purpose of our economy.
If even one person can’t find a living-wage job quickly, it’s a moral outrage. Activists in the full employment movement need to hammer home that message consistently. Most Americans are moral people. They want to do what is right. Let’s tap our deep moral sense and encourage one another to fulfill our true nature as compassionate human beings.
It’s easy to get wrapped in up facts, figures, history, policy debates, and speculations about the future. But the eyes of most people glaze over when confronted with all those statistics and theoretical arguments.
Let’s focus instead on the moral issue. We are obligated as a human community to make sure that every adult among us who is able and willing to work has the opportunity to earn enough to make ends meet at a minimally decent level.
Let’s build strong, clear support for that position and persuade those with the ability to do so to achieve that goal. We don’t have to agree on exactly how to do it. The experts can figure that out. What we ordinary people need to do is monitor whether or not our society has secured for everyone the human right to a living-wage job opportunity. Until they do, we need to keep pressuring key decision-makers to do it.
Perhaps our nation will experience a moral renewal that will prompt businesses that are already highly profitable to pay higher wages. Perhaps the wealthy will decide to donate 10% of their wealth to non-profit organizations to hire public-service workers. Perhaps the economy will grow to the point that anyone can find a living-wage job.
But until some miracle like that happens, the federal government has a moral obligation to step up and provide the necessary funds. We need to focus on that moral issue like a laser beam, and not get distracted by side issues. If the government can figure out how to rescue Wall Street, they can figure out how to rescue Main Street.
Build the Base
Those of us who are committed to this goal already have a great deal of support. In March 2013, based on a study funded by the highly reputable Russell Sage Foundation, three respected political scientists, Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright, reported that two-thirds of the American people believe “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.”
The wording in that survey is important. It did not ask people if they support a guaranteed job, as have other surveys. Rather, it used the phrase “can find a job.” As discussed above, that formulation implies assuring a job opportunity. It does not assume that people who find a job can keep it regardless of their effort. It does not guarantee a job unconditionally.
Polls indicate the importance of the distinction. The Page/Bartels/Seawright study found lower support for “the federal government should provide jobs for everyone able and willing to work who cannot find a job in private employment.” Barely more than half supported that position.
And a 2014 YouGov/Huffington Post poll asked, “Would you favor or oppose a law guaranteeing a job to every American adult, with the government providing jobs for people who can’t find employment in the private sector?” In that poll, more people supported that proposition, 47%, than opposed it, 41%. But support for each of these positions was weaker than with the “job opportunity” option.
Various methods are available to create jobs, including providing more support for the private economy. But according to most Americans, the ultimate responsibility rests in DC: “the government in Washington.”
Other polls have shown strong support for federal job creation programs. A March 2013 Gallup poll, for example, found that three-fourths supported “a federal jobs creation law that would spend government money for a program designed to create more than 1 million new jobs.”
The Page/Bartels/Seawright study also found that three-fourths of the general public believe the minimum wage should be “high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below [the] official poverty line.” That response indicates that an overwhelming majority of Americans believes that full-time workers should earn a “living wage” that enables them to avoid poverty.
Different elements of a full employment movement could back various proposals for increasing the minimum wage. One option is to raise the minimum wage to a level that will enable single workers to avoid poverty and increase the Earned Income Tax credit for families to achieve the same goal. A recent poll conducted by Hart Research Associates found 80 percent of the respondents agreed that the minimum wage should be raised to $10.10 an hour. A national meeting in Washington on April 28 will be pushing for a $15 per hour minimum wage.
(If you want to form your own opinion about what a single childless worker in your state needs to make ends meet, experiment with the New York Times interactive calculator, which allows you to construct a line-item living-wage budget.)
Through vigorous public debate, we can trust the “wisdom of crowds” and develop a consensus about how to concretely ensure living-wage incomes, while at the same time building support for the proposition that as a society, one way or the other, we must assuring everyone a living-wage job opportunity.
We would not need total agreement within a full employment movement on all specific methods. Rather, we can respect our differences and focus on building broad support for our basic goal: guaranteeing all Americans a living-wage job opportunity.
Promote True Full Employment
In recent decades, most economists have mistakenly re-defined “full employment” to mean something other than what the term used to mean and what most people understand it to mean – namely, that anyone who wants to work can quickly find a job. Instead, they’ve tied full employment to a specific rate of unemployment that is supposedly necessary to prevent excessive inflation.
This new definition carries weight, because the economists behind it are highly respected by pundits and politicians who help shape public opinion. These economists define full employment as the “non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment,” or NAIRU. Wikipedia says NAIRU “refers to a level of unemployment below which inflation rises.” Investopedia defines it as “the specific level of unemployment that exists in an economy that does not cause inflation to increase.”
Thus, by definition, the NAIRU consists of an automatic cause-and-effect relationship between some particular rate of unemployment and inflation. That’s why economists give it so much weight. On the face of it, however, this concept is nonsense. There is no such simple cause-and-effect relationship. Reality is far more complicated than that.
The economists themselves can’t agree on what that rate of unemployment is. And the most recent official predictions were wrong. Decreasing unemployment rates in the 1990s, for example, did not lead to any insignificant increase in “core inflation,” which excludes oil prices. Yet economists still talk about the NAIRU as if it were Gospel truth.
Once you accept that no NAIRU has magical powers and you recognize that other factors are extremely relevant, the only logical conclusion is to accept that, given the political will, we can use measures other than creating unemployment to deal with any inflationary pressures that result from achieving true full employment. The NAIRU therefore is a myth. It does not hold the power it is supposed to have.
This conclusion is reinforced by an analysis of the historical record. For example:
- Wage setting practices in Sweden and Japan maintained a sustainable balance between wage growth and productivity growth into the 1980s.
- Rapid worker productivity growth in various countries have restrained wage and price increases.
- Price controls have been used to restrain prices.
- Increased global competition is limiting price increases.
We should also bear in mind that we can fund public-service jobs without increasing the deficit (which can be inflationary). Workers in a federally funded jobs program can remain available to take jobs in the private sector, just as they do when they collect unemployment insurance. Also, the amount of money the federal government sends to each region can be based on that region’s unemployment rate: regions with more unemployment can receive more funding. Finally, we can reduce funding for direct job creation as unemployment declines. All of these methods will minimize inflationary pressures.
If wages and Social Security keep pace, a modest increase in prices is not problematic (except for Wall Street traders who did not anticipate the increase). The gains from increased employment would be far greater than any potential costs from higher inflation. Even if prices did increase, the rise would be gradual, allowing time for corrective measures, if needed.
Once again, we need not get hung up on trying to reach agreement on exact methods. Rather, we can stay focused on our goal and insist that if and when policy makers at some point in the future consider creating unemployment to restrain inflation, they should do so openly with full public debate.
In the meantime, we can keep in mind four facts: 1) The NAIRU with its alleged automatic cause-and-effect relationship is blatantly false. 2) There’s a good possibility we can achieve full employment without adding to inflationary pressures. 3) There are other ways to deal with any inflationary problems that result and we should try those options first. 4) Creating unemployment to control inflation should be the absolute last resort.
We should not blindly trust economists (or any other technocrat). They’ve often been terribly wrong on many important matters in the past. They tend to ignore morality and are too willing to sacrifice the unemployed and working poor on the altar of “economic growth” that fails to lift all boats. Instead, we should rely primarily on our own common sense and clear logic, and stay grounded in the key moral issue: every adult who is able and willing to work deserves a living-wage job opportunity.
Signs of a contemporary full employment movement have been percolating for decades. New Initiatives for Full Employment (NIFE), an ethnically and racially diverse group of social activists and academics began working together on the East Coast in 1986 to develop a feasible plan for full employment. From April 1990 to March 1991, the San Francisco-based Solutions to Poverty Workshop developed a concrete 10-point National Program to Abolish Involuntary Poverty. The San Francisco Antipoverty Congress adopted that program in April 1992, which led to the formation of the Campaign to Abolish Poverty (CAP) and the introduction of the Living Wage Jobs for All Act by Congressman Ron Dellums. In June 1994, NIFE convened the National Jobs for All Coalition, which was committed to building a new movement for full employment at livable wages.
In the summer of 1994, an alliance of labor and religious organizations in Baltimore began organizing for a local living-wage ordinance, which was adopted in December. In March 1995, the Campaign for Sustainable Milwaukee launched its campaign for a living-wage law using Baltimore as a model. In the fall of 1995, Chicago initiated its successful, similar effort.
In 1996, the Full Employment Coalition convened a Jobs for All Week, began organizing for a living-wage law in San Francisco, and supported similar efforts in other cities. Scores of cities and counties throughout the country now have living-wage laws.
More than 130,000 individuals have signed the OUR Walmart petition asking President Obama to support Walmart workers who are risking their livelihood by organizing fellow workers. Fast-food workers organizing with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United to increase the minimum wage are asking consumers to sign a petition declaring, “I am willing to pay an extra dime a day for my food so that close to 8 million food system workers and 21 million additional low-wage workers can receive a much deserved raise to help them meet their basic needs.”
In 2013 Congressman John Conyers, Jr. introduced HR 1000, the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Training Act, which is being promoted by the Jobs for All Campaign. The bill already has 57 co-sponsors. In early 2014, Conyers and his co-chair, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, launched the first-ever Congressional Full Employment Caucus and convened a public forum on “Employment: A Human Right” that attracted a standing-room-only crowd in the House Office Building. On March 22, a public forum on HR 1000 will be held at the University of DC Law School, and plans are afoot for a DC National Day of Action focused on HR 1000 in late May or early June. And on April 28 a national gathering will focus on establishing a $15 per hour minimum wage – as was done in SeaTac, WA.
The greatest obstacle to expanding and deepening these efforts is cynicism and passivity. Most Americans believe they can’t have much impact, so they remain inactive, thereby fulfilling their prophecy. Overcoming this circular dynamic is an urgent task. To achieve that goal, activists need to develop some new organizing methods.
More Effective Methods
Like the rest of our society, most activist organizations get wrapped up in facts and figures and policy prescriptions, and fail to affirm underlying moral values. They rely on tapping anger and fear, and neglect deeper feelings of love and faith. They aim to score victories by defeating opponents, rather than seeking win-win solutions. They focus on the outer world and ignore the inner world. They aim to change others and overlook the need to change themselves. They operate too much in the head, not enough in the heart. They become excessively task-oriented, and forget to evaluate their process and how their members relate to each other. They overlook the need to empower people. They primarily rely on mobilizing people to take some specific action, rather than collective problem solving. They often have hidden agendas. They spend too much time calculating what is “political,” rather than speaking honestly. They may “listen” to people when they first recruit them, but then stop really listening. They lecture, often with a shrill tone, and try to “educate,” rather than engaging in authentic dialog. They aim to persuade, and stop learning. They are too arrogant and judgmental, rather than humble and understanding. They function like an impersonal machine that uses people until they use them up. They manipulate people by stroking their egos. They are side-tracked by self-centered power struggles. They tend to believe that some one person must always be in charge – that individuals must either dominate or submit – rather than collaborate as equals. They have too many boring meetings. They don’t sing and dance enough. They don’t enjoy enough cultural experiences together. They don’t just hang out and socialize informally enough. They are too serious. They don’t have enough fun. They forget to love the universe and the life force that energizes and structures it.
These patterns drive away many potential activists. If we want to build an effective full employment movement, or any other movement that is going to have a real impact, we need to develop new ways of organizing. The old methods work well for some people. That’s fine. It’s not either/or. But new approaches could draw in people who are currently inactive.
Full Employment Clubs
One method that could help is to grow a network of “full employment clubs” that attract new members with contagious happiness. The members of these clubs could share meals, socialize informally, and support one another in their personal growth, community building, and political action.
These self-governing clubs would engage in a wide variety of activities. Different clubs would experiment with different methods. There would be no one cookie-cutter formula for everyone to follow. Each member would define her or his own goals. All members of some clubs might belong to the same organization. Other clubs might consist only of individuals who belong to no organization. Some members might convene support groups for unemployed workers, or lobby their Congressperson. Others might volunteer at a food bank, or help a new business prosper. Study groups, public forums, and Internet outreach are obvious options. The possibilities are unlimited.
This diversification would encourage the growth of new structures that foster social change. Reports on the results of the experiments could be posted on a central website for other members of other clubs in the network to review and perhaps replicate, or modify.
Some minimal common ground throughout the network could provide all members with a shared identity, a sense of belonging to the same community. Toward this end, the network’s mission could be: to help assure everyone a living-wage job opportunity.
The network’s primary method could be: to encourage and cultivate the development of caring communities whose members support one another in their personal growth, community building, and political action.
The network’s only specific requirement, to which all clubs would agree, could be that the members of each club would meet at least once a month to share a meal, socialize informally, report on their activities and plans (with regard to personal growth, community building, and political action), and make decisions concerning future activities.
Given the somewhat intimate nature of these gatherings, some clubs might choose to start small and invite only close, trusted friends to join. One person could recruit one other person and the two of them could recruit a third.
A club could be defined as a team of three or more individuals who affirm the network’s mission, primary method, and specific requirement. This commonality among all the clubs could nurture a sense of community, while allowing for maximum flexibility and self-determination.
A commitment to work consistently in each of the three areas addressed – the personal, the social, and the political – is important, because efforts in each area can reinforce and strengthen efforts in the other two.
For club members, the emphasis would undoubtedly shift from day by day. The members might engage in political action only occasionally. But it seems they could reasonably be asked to dedicate at least an hour or two each month to help improve public policies. After all, we vote because we feel it is our duty, even though one vote is rarely decisive. We need to feel a similar obligation to be politically engaged between elections.
It also seems reasonable to ask others to devote at least an hour or two each month to strengthen a community in their home town, thereby helping to establish examples that can point the way to a better future.
Each day members can also work on becoming better human beings, if only by paying attention to how they operate, acknowledging mistakes, and resolving to avoid them in the future. Such honest self-evaluation enables activists to steadily become more effective.
With consistent efforts in these three areas, we could fulfill our obligation to do our fair share to improve the world.
These full employment clubs could also help combat growing social isolation by nurturing soulful, authentic, face-to-face relationships that help people fulfill their potential. Members could expand and deepen their circle of close, trusted friends. In these safe havens, they could feel free to be themselves, have fun, express honest feelings, listen carefully, give and receive support, get to know one another, discuss the meaning of life, evaluate what’s right and what’s wrong, help one another become better human beings, and consider how to improve social institutions and governmental policies. The network could exchange information about opportunities for social and political action, without endorsing or lobbying for any specific legislation.
Most people learn from and are inspired primarily by peers they know and trust. To build a popular movement in this country at this time, we need to learn how to reach out to our friends, enrich those friendships, provide meaningful opportunities for social engagement, and cultivate compassionate communities. Given the dehumanizing pressures of modern life, merely relying on spontaneity and the development of natural human friendships is not sufficient. We also need conscious, skillful efforts to cultivate compassionate community. We need to offer time-challenged people easy, attractive ways to have more rewarding experiences that are rooted in open, transparent, mutually respectful collaboration.
I am available to help get this kind of network off the ground. If you want to gather in San Francisco August 15-18 to discuss this possibility, please let me know. My associates and I could find free housing for a good number of individuals who need it. At our gathering, we could discuss efforts along this line, brainstorm about future possibilities, have some fun, and explore some hidden gems in San Francisco that most tourists never see (plan your vacation now!). In the meantime, if you’re interested in experimenting with these ideas, feel free to do so. As I travel this spring and when I return home in late May, I will.
If others want to organize a broader range of activities to help build a national full employment movement during those days in August, I’d also be available to help with that as best I can.
The full employment movement is beginning to blossom. You can help build this movement in your hometown and on the Internet. Your options include:
- Support the Jobs for All Campaign.
- Donate to the National Jobs for All Coalition.
- Encourage your Congressperson and Senators to join the Congressional Full Employment Coalition.
- Sign the Guarantee Living-Wage Job Opportunities petition.
- Participate in a Jobs for All Campaign planning meeting in DC in late March.
- Participate in or watch a live stream of the public forum on HR 1000 to be held March 22, 3-5 pm, at the University of DC Law School.
- Participate in the April 28 meeting to promote a $15 per hour minimum wage.
- Help plan a DC National Day of Action to back HR 1000 in late May or early June.
- Sign the Making Change at Walmart petition.
- Sign the restaurant workers petition calling for a higher minimum wage.
- Experiment with a “full employment club” on your own, or perhaps come to San Francisco August 15-18 to discuss how to foster a “full employment club network” as discussed above.
Let’s help the United States live up to its ideals. Let’s “promote the general welfare” and secure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all, by building a full employment movement!
Wade Lee Hudson. a part-time cab driver and community organizer who lives in San Francisco, is author of the Guarantee Living-Wage Job Opportunities petition (see a video here). To stay informed concerning efforts to secure living-wage job opportunities for all, you can email wade AT wadehudson DOT net.