Today, Bernie Sanders unveiled his plan for a Green New Deal. Its most important function will be to pull the planet back from the brink of annihilation by slashing carbon emissions and transitioning to renewable energy.
But it has another implication, one of special importance to socialists. Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s house bill, Bernie’s plan introduces a federal jobs program to put people to work building new green infrastructure. It calls for the creation of 20 million “good paying, union jobs with strong benefits and safety standards in steel and auto manufacturing, construction, energy efficiency retrofitting, coding and server farms, and renewable power plants.” All of this work will go toward making the necessary transition to a sustainable society no longer dependent on fossil fuels.
While the official estimates are always too low, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts about 6 million people as unemployed and actively looking for work. Sanders’s Green New Deal plan would, in a sense, amount to a de facto job guarantee, functionally guaranteeing employment to anyone who is searching for it.
For decades, a public job guarantee has been a staple demand of the socialist movement. The reason is that a job guarantee is the only surefire way to reach what’s called full employment. Full employment eliminates one of the central problems facing the working class as it seeks to organize for improved pay and conditions: the threat of termination and unemployment.
One of capitalism’s cleverest maneuvers, as Albert Einstein wrote in his essay “Why Socialism?” in 1949, is that “There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an ‘army of unemployed’ almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job.”
The result of chronic unemployment is that workers are willing to accept wages that are far too low to provide financial security and decent living conditions — wages they would otherwise reject, if their feet weren’t held to the fire. Another consequence is that workers who fear unemployment are afraid to organize in their workplaces, because the boss can simply fire them, and they may not be able to find work easily. The bosses, meanwhile, don’t have to worry about the consequences of laying people off, because there’s always a long line of unemployed people waiting in the wings to replace them.
On the political side, chronic unemployment also means that workers can easily be convinced that the government must cater to the interests of capitalists, because if it doesn’t, the capitalists will get angry and disinvest, taking jobs with them as they slam the door. Full employment can’t solve that problem entirely — but imagine how much braver workers could be in demanding that corporations stop running roughshod over society if they had confidence that the public sector could fill the employment gap left by corporate shuttering or outsourcing.
Full employment would constitute a massive transfer of power to the working class. If workers didn’t have to worry so much about about being fired or laid off, they could be a lot bolder, and they could exert a great deal more pressure on the capitalist class. Workers would stand a much better chance at wringing concessions that could improve life for hundreds of millions of people, whether that’s better pay for themselves or universal health care for all.
The demand for full employment, achieved via the mass provision of high-paying public jobs, has long been part of the socialist program. In 1912, the Socialist Party ran Eugene V. Debs for president. Its platform read, “Multitudes of unemployed walk the streets of our cities or trudge from State to State awaiting the will of the masters to move the wheels of industry.” It thus demanded:
The immediate government relief of the unemployed by the extension of all useful public works. All persons employed on such works to be engaged directly by the government under a work day of not more than eight hours and at not less than the prevailing union wages. The government also to establish employment bureaus; to lend money to states and municipalities without interest for the purpose of carrying on public works, and to take such other measures within its power as will lessen the widespread misery of the workers caused by the misrule of the capitalist class.
A public job guarantee was also a key demand of the Civil Rights Movement. The full title of the 1963 March on Washington, organized in large part by socialists including A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King Jr himself, was actually the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” In A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, a pamphlet authored in 1966 by those three men, a job guarantee was a central demand. The first of its seven demands was “to provide full employment for all who are willing and able to work.”
As Coretta Scott King later put it, “the unemployed are not pawns to be sacrificed in some economic chess game.” She explicitly advocated for full employment as the next phase of the Civil Rights struggle.
In the 1970s, the New American Movement, which later merged with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), printed a poster that explained socialists’ thinking on a job guarantee beautifully:
If you’re unemployed, it’s not because there isn’t any work. Just look around: a housing shortage, crime, pollution; we need better schools and parks. Whatever our needs, they all require work. And as long as we have unsatisfied needs, there is work to be done. So ask yourself, what kind of world has work but no jobs? It’s a world where work is not related to satisfying our needs, a world where work is only related to satisfying the profit needs of business.
There are plenty of people without work, and there’s plenty of work to be done. A public job guarantee is a way of finding a solution for both. The Green New Deal, which endeavors to address the climate crisis and the unemployment crisis simultaneously, is a perfect illustration of the principle.
Despite a long legacy, the demand for a job guarantee to provide full employment has been off the table for decades. Now, thanks to the Green New Deal, it’s coming back, and it’s scaring capitalists and their allies. When self-avowed pro-business Democrat John Hickenlooper derided socialism in the first Democratic Party primary debate in 2019, he exclaimed that it was a fantasy that our nation, wealthy as it is, could provide everyone a good job if they want it.
Some viewers that night probably hadn’t ever heard of the idea of a job guarantee or full employment. In his panic, Hicklenlooper exposed them to one of the most vital and enduring demands of the socialist movement.
This is one of the most important and exciting offerings of the Green New Deal. If we pull it off, we not only get a chance to avert climate destruction and preserve the earth for future generations. We also get a chance to massively increase the power of working people. They can use that power to wrest more control from the capitalist class, whose hunger for profit got us into this climate mess to begin with.