Building The Full Employment Movement

Isaiah J. Poole

Trudy Goldberg, chair of the National Jobs For All Coalition, talks about the effort to build a full employment movement.

When Chris Horton was asked to speak to a group of grassroots activists Wednesday at the opening of a two-day session on “building the movement for full employment,” his first move was not to the podium but directly to the audience sitting in a hearing room at the Rayburn House Office Building.

Before he spoke, he insisted that everyone look at the chart near the bottom of a one-page document he was handing out. The chart shows the raw numbers of people between the ages of 35 and 44 that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has recorded as employed since 1999.

Employment 35-44 1999-2013

For Horton, who runs the Worcester Unemployment Action Group in Massachusetts, the chart symbolizes the depth of the nation’s unemployment crisis – and the fact that even many progressives don’t grasp its severity.

“We need to change the conversation,” he said, finally taking command of a microphone at the front of the room. “We have a depression, not a recovery.”

Horton’s exhortation captured much of the tone of a strategy session on full employment that included several members of Congress, policy experts leaders from labor and advocacy organizations.

“A Human Right”

The rallying point is Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers’ Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Training Act. The bill aims to provide a job to anyone who wants one through a variety of means, including direct federal job creation. The effort would be paid for through a financial transactions tax on stock trades. It builds upon the current Humphrey-Hawkins full employment law, which requires the Federal Reserve to report to Congress on its efforts to balance job growth with suppressing inflation.

“It’s past time for our government to make creating jobs and full employment a human right. That ought to be number one,” Conyers said.

He said that his legislation would help small and midsize businesses step up their hiring. His bill would also increase funding for job training programs, and aid state and local governments that cut their public employee rolls in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Conyers has built a Full Employment Caucus in the House around the bill. He said that he hopes “President Obama will make this his legacy,” but he also pointed a finger at Congress – and by extension, progressives who should be pushing their representatives to embrace Conyers’ bill. “I am proud to say that we’ve got 57 members supporting H.R. 1000, but that’s what we had last week. We need to get some more members on board. I should be reporting every week that we picked up two or three or four members as this thing moves forward.”

Part of the challenge is to reverse the willingness of the Washington establishment to accept a “new normal” of permanently high unemployment. Philip Harvey, economics professor at Rutgers University, said the very definition of full employment has been “muddied” in ways that limit how policymakers respond to the problem. At a time when 6.1 percent unemployment – the rate announced Friday by the Labor Department – is praised as good progress and 5 percent unemployment is the standard for the absolute best the economy can do, Harvey said we should insist on a full employment definition based on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s enumeration of a right to a job for anyone who wants one.

“The problem is with unemployment in the 4 to 5 percent range, the economy does not come close to providing work to everyone who wants it,” Harvey said. What we should be shooting for instead, he said, is unemployment at 2 percent or lower. One reason is that when unemployment rates remain in the 5 percent range, there are still millions of workers who are suffering some form of disadvantage – due to race, age, education level or other factor – who are still left behind.

“It’s not enough to fight for equal employment opportunities. We have to close the economy’s job gap,” he said. The best way to do that, he said, was through direct job creation strategies like the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps programs that emerged from the New Deal.

Opportunities For Congressional Action

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) told the group that she has sponsored legislation that would recreate the Civilian Conservation Corps. She also highlighted other opportunities for lawmakers and activists to advance a job-creation agenda, such as demanding funding to reduce the $60 billion backlog of Army Corps of Engineers projects, many of which would involve improving ports or addressing environmental problems. This year, the House is voting to approve less than $1 billion toward that backlog, Kaptur said.

“Imagine if we were to have amendments offered to the bill that dealt with employment. They won’t pass the House in this environment, but we would have an opportunity to point to the $60 billion of infrastructure backlog in that bill and talk about jobs and full employment,” she said.

“Right now, we’re not organized as a caucus to do that, but that’s the purpose of this caucus, to think about that,” she said.

A full-employment effort would also attack the drivers of our trade deficit, which Kaptur said cost the economy 5.8 million jobs just in 2013. It would embrace the imperative to shift to a green economy, including shifts to renewable energy, energy conservation and environmental cleanup and improvements. It would insist that we invest in both our physical infrastructure – our transportation systems and public assets – and our human infrastructure, through our public schools and adult learning programs.

Rev. Rodney S. Sadler, an associate Bible professor at Union Theological Seminary, reminded the group that building the movement for full employment is not just an economic imperative – it is a moral one.

He pointed people to the parable in Matthew 20 in which Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a landowner who hires day workers to work in his field. Late in the day, that landowner recruits more unemployed workers. At the end of the day, the workers who were hired at the end of the day were paid the same wages as those hired at the beginning of the day.

Sadler offered two lessons from this passage. First, he said, “the Kingdom of God is like a Jobs for All program.” Second, he said, while the rules would suggest that a person who works all day should be paid more than a person who were hired at the end of the day, “justice says everybody should get what they need to survive.”

“The full employment conversation begins with the recognition of the value of every human being,” Sadler said. “A job is not a privilege in this world. A job is a human right.”

Already, “Witness Wednesdays” have been taking place at the Capitol to bring the stories of unemployed people to lawmakers and their staffs. Gertrude “Trudy” Goldberg, chair of the National Jobs for All Program, said that the organization hopes the strategy sessions will give birth to more public actions during the summer and fall that will elevate the need for true full employment as a national priority.


Watch the Full “Jobs for All: Building the Movement for Full Employment” Strategy Briefing

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