It was an iconic moment: Young people occupy Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding a Green New Deal to put millions of people to work making a climate-safe economy—when suddenly newly-elected Congressional representative and overnight media star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joins them with a resolution in hand to establish a Select Committee for a Green New Deal. But those who actually read her resolution closely may have been puzzled—or stunned—by its call for “a jobs guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one.”
What is a “jobs guarantee program” and what does it have to do with protecting the climate?
The federal jobs guarantee (JG) is a concept also known as “jobs for all” and the federal government as “employer of last resort.” It envisions a federal program somewhat like the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) that would provide funds for non-profit organizations, local governments, and other agencies serving the public to employ anyone who wants a job at a wage roughly comparable to the demands of the Fight for $15 campaign. According to columnist Jonathan Chait, the jobs guarantee plan “has materialized almost out of nowhere and ascended nearly to the status of Democratic Party doctrine.”
The advocates of JG generally include climate protection as one of many types of work beneficial to the public that might be included in a jobs guarantee program. However, they generally have not said how such a program might specifically address the climate emergency.
This May, Varshini Prakash and Sarah Meyerhoff, two leaders of the youth climate group Sunrise Movement, wrote an article titled “It’s Time for the Climate Movement to Embrace a Federal Jobs Guarantee.” They called for a policy through which “the government directly employs anyone who wants a job but doesn’t have one.” They argued that a jobs guarantee program with a strong focus on stopping and preparing for climate change might “quickly marshal public support and resources behind climate action.”
Sunrise Movement is a youth climate organization that aims to “stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.” It has been taking the lead on efforts to combine climate protection with a federal jobs guarantee. Other groups like the Sierra Club, Demos, 350.org, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Labor Network for Sustainability, and the US Climate Action Network have also been discussing the climate jobs guarantee (CJG).
“A universal program big enough to address the massive and complicated crisis of climate change, but still tangible and popular among the vast majority of Americans.”
The CJG appears to have popular support. Polling firm Civis Analytics says a jobs guarantee is one of the most popular issues they’ve ever polled: 52% in support and 29% opposed. Polling by Sunrise indicates that support for a jobs guarantee focused on climate protection is even more popular. Prakash and Meyerhoff say a climate jobs guarantee could be the climate movement’s “Medicare-for-All” policy – “a universal program big enough to address the massive and complicated crisis of climate change, but still tangible and popular among the vast majority of Americans.”
The climate jobs guarantee has also been finding political support. Sen. Bernie Sanders is developing a jobs guarantee proposal; many Democratic candidates and presidential hopefuls have supported the idea. It was projected into the 2018 campaign and is likely to play an even greater role in 2020. Evan Weber of Sunrise says the group’s top goal for the next two years is to “Push JG to the top of the political agenda.”
Sunrise’s “Climate Jobs Guarantee Policy Primer” concludes that by “making a Jobs Guarantee a headline demand for the climate movement” we can “end the ‘jobs vs. environment’ fallacy forever”; rally “unprecedented public support behind climate action”; and “ensure that JG proposals include jobs for a just and rapid transition to a zero-carbon, climate-resilient economy.”
The jobs guarantee
The discussion of a jobs guarantee has been largely based on an April, 2018 working paper by Pavlina R. Tchernevaof the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College called “The Job Guarantee: Design, Jobs, and Implementation” and the report “The Federal Job Guarantee – A Policy to Achieve Permanent Full Employment” by Mark Paul, William Darity, Jr., and Darrick Hamilton commissioned by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
A federal jobs guarantee will provide jobs for all who want them in their own communities performing socially useful work. It will be established by federal legislation, funded by the federal government, and run under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor. It will be primarily administered by local and municipal governments, nonprofits, social enterprises, and cooperatives. In some ways it resembles the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), but in contrast it is a permanent program, though its size can be expected to vary depending on economic conditions and social needs.
The JG will not exclude any individual or group of people who want to work. It will make whatever special provisions are necessary to employ veterans, at-risk youth, ex-convicts, people with disabilities, and other people with special needs and/or barriers to employment. Like the WPA, it will fit jobs to people, providing employment that is appropriate to their education, skill, and experience. It will provide part-time and flexible work arrangements for those who need them.
The jobs provided by this program will pay an estimated $15 per hour plus benefits, including health insurance. “Because it guarantees that every person who wishes to work can find a public-option job with a living wage-benefit package,” the JG “establishes the labor standard that must be met by all employers in the private, public, or nonprofit sectors,” ensuring that “no working person would live in poverty.” It will provide education, training, and apprenticeship opportunities.
The JG will establish “community jobs banks” which find and list available and potential jobs in the communities where they are needed. It will create the greatest number of jobs in communities with the greatest number of people needing work, and will target those groups that have been deprived of fair access to good jobs. The JG will assess community needs and resources to “match unfilled community needs with unemployed or underemployed people who could work to meet them.” It will include programs to protect and improve the environment.
The JG will greatly reduce unemployment, welfare, and other benefit programs, so its net cost will be somewhere between 0.8 percent and 2 percent of GPD. That’s not counting additional savings from reduced unemployment, substance abuse, health-related costs for uninsured individuals, and suicide.
The JG is a new program that does not replace existing programs. People will have a choice between receiving unemployment insurance, welfare benefits, or working under the JG program. JG is an employment program, not a workfare program that requires people to work in order to receive other benefits to which they are entitled like Medicaid, SNAP, or Head Start. It does not displace existing public or private sector work.
The estimated direct cost of providing jobs for all is 1.3 percent to 2.4 percent of GDP. This is about half of what we now spend on Social Security and half of what we spend on Medicare and Medicaid. The JG will greatly reduce unemployment, welfare, and other benefit programs, so its net cost will be somewhere between 0.8 percent and 2 percent of GPD. That’s not counting additional savings from reduced unemployment, substance abuse, health-related costs for uninsured individuals, and suicide.
Tcherneva points out that this program is an investment in the public good. It “separates the offer of employment” from “the profitability of employment.” Projects are “created to serve community needs,” rather than “prioritizing whether the projects are deemed ‘profitable’ in the narrow sense.”
Why a climate jobs guarantee?
A climate jobs guarantee proposes a jobs guarantee program that is geared to the transition to a climate-safe, fossil-free economy. It will accomplish four principal objectives:
The JG provides a powerful weapon against poverty, inequality, and injustice. It will eliminate poverty among nearly all who want to work by providing a living wage and benefits to everyone who will take a job. Because the program is open to all, it ensures that those who have been most excluded from remunerative employment for whatever reason are guaranteed a job with benefits at an above-poverty level. It therefore has the greatest beneficial impact on the most marginalized and discriminated-against people. By lifting up those who have been at the bottom economically it directly reduces inequality. The program is designed to further realize these objectives through recruitment, training, and job design focused on those who have been excluded from good jobs.
"The jobs guarantee provides a powerful weapon against poverty, inequality, and injustice."
The JG, unlike many social policies that aim to “raise the bottom,” will directly benefit the millions of people who are currently outside the workforce. These people do not show up in unemployment statistics; they only show up in the shrinking proportion of Americans who are in the labor force. These people have little reason to hope they can make a living through a job. The jobs guarantee will provide them both the opportunity and the incentive to join the workforce.
The JG will also provide jobs with benefits for the millions who are unemployed or involuntarily working only part time. This will benefit not only those who have been laid off from steady jobs, but the larger number of workers for whom intermittent involuntary unemployment is the norm.
The JG will drive up the wage floor in the rest of the economy since workers who are paid less than $15 an hour plus benefits can shift to the JG program. That enormously increases their bargaining power and means that employers must pay a comparable wage-benefit package to retain their workforce. The JG is therefore an effective means to achieve the objectives of the Fight for $15.
The JG will help increase all workers’ power by strengthening their ability to organize and bargain collectively. It should be designed to create a sector of the economy that guarantees worker protections and standards, including workers’ right to organize, bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, engage in concerted action, and retain their Constitutional rights on the job. It will eliminate the proverbial “long line of job seekers outside the employer’s door” that undermines the power of workers to effectively bargain with employers.
2. Climate protection and other public purposes
The climate jobs guarantee, by drawing millions of people into the workforce, will provide the labor power needed for an emergency mobilization to transition to a fossil free, climate safe economy, as well as to meet a wide range of other public purposes. In this it resembles the homefront mobilization in World War II through which the war effort was able to meet its need for millions of workers. Without such an increase in the available workforce, the creation of millions of climate jobs will be stymied through labor shortage leading to uncontrolled inflation. The CJG will provide work experience and training that will allow its participants to move into higher skilled, higher wage jobs in the private and public sectors.
In addition to climate protection, workers in the JG program will also be able to provide for a wide range of needs that can help reduce injustice and create a better way of life for all. These range from education to housing to environmental protection and improvement. The WPA produced schools, parks, post offices, and other amenities that we still celebrate today; The JG can do the same.
3. Countering economic cycles
For many advocates of a jobs guarantee, a primary purpose is to counter the economic cycles of boom and bust. In times of recession, the millions of people thrown out of work not only constitute a monstrous accumulation of injustice and human misery; their loss of income leads to a decrease in effective demand (aka purchasing power) that aggravates the downward spiral of the economy. The JG automatically counteracts this tendency by employing a high proportion of those who have lost their jobs, thus maintaining their incomes and the economy’s effective demand. When the economy expands, many workers will choose to leave the JG for better jobs, providing an expanded workforce for the private and public sectors. JG workers who are needed for climate protection and other essential activities can then transfer to other sectors.
4. Economic democratization
The JG provides a way to challenge our society’s growing democracy deficits. According to Tcherneva, it can encourage “citizen engagement, public decision-making, and local institution building,” for example through local participatory budgeting and community input about local projects.
Because the program aspires for citizen input, because it drastically reduces the threat of unemployment, because it puts pressure on punitive labor practices in the private sector, because it establishes a labor standard for pay and working conditions, and because it focuses exclusively on investing in the public good, it can be an institution with profound democratizing tendencies, and a conduit for transformative change in the workplace, people’s everyday lives, and the economy as a whole.
The JG also provides opportunities for workers and communities to experiment with alternative, more democratic forms of enterprise, such as coops and public utilities. The JG should encourage such experiments and ensure a level playing field for them.
Meshing the jobs guarantee with climate jobs
The jobs guarantee, like the WPA, is based on hiring people without regard to their existing skills and then matching people with available jobs. The jobs created by climate policy will not automatically fit the workers in the CJG program. Conversely, the jobs proposed by most current JG proposals, while worthy, will only incidentally include jobs that help protect the climate. How can a climate jobs guarantee contribute to a Green New Deal -- a massive, rapid transition to climate safety that at the same time provides a massive, rapid reduction of poverty and economic marginalization?
"Fortunately, the transition to a climate safe, fossil-free economy will entail millions of jobs that do not require a high skill level and are not limited by gender."
This problem arises in part because the workforce has effectively been divided into a low-wage, low-job quality sector in which people of color, women, youth, and other disfavored groups have been concentrated, and a higher-wage, more secure sector which disproportionately includes white men. Those in the higher sector have a far greater opportunity to acquire skills, apprenticeship, union membership, connections, education, and opportunities to move upward. Those in the lower sector are disproportionately excluded from all these.
Many of the millions of jobs required to protect the climate will be infrastructure jobs that generally require skills acquired through apprenticeship, education, advanced training, and opportunity to work in favored jobs and industries. But as Tcherneva notes, infrastructure alone is not a particularly effective means of ensuring full employment, given that many infrastructure jobs require higher skill levels and are often male dominated. A JG program must create opportunities for those who are less skilled or for whom intense manual labor is not suitable.
Fortunately, the transition to a climate safe, fossil-free economy will entail millions of jobs that do not require a high skill level and are not limited by gender. The report“Green New Deal” by Data for Progress details a wide array of climate-protecting jobs that would be appropriate to the JG workforce. Jobs requiring minimal experience or on-the-job training include weatherization and energy efficiency improvements, waste removal and recycling, tree-planting, and wetland restoration. Jobs requiring some experience, education, or certification include energy auditing, building electrification, solar, wind, and geothermal installation, and mass transit electrification.
Five policies are required to make climate jobs programs mesh with the CJG:
1. Priority in climate programs to jobs covered under the CJG.
2. Training within the CJG to help workers move from “minimum experience” to “some experience” jobs. An example would be training weatherization workers to perform more sophisticated “deep efficiency” retrofits. Programs like Oakland’s Green Jobs for All and Emerald Cities can provide considerable experience with such workforce development.
3. Apprenticeship and job training to equip CJG workers to move into permanent climate jobs in the public and private sectors. This may require tailoring and greatly expanding apprenticeship programs with preference for CJG candidates.
4. Preference for hiring CJG workers in publicly funded climate programs.
5. Means to transfer CJG work units to the public and private sectors. This could include, for example, turning CJG projects into municipal agencies and/or allowing them to become subcontractors to the private or government sectors.
These policies would build the CJG into the core of climate protection programs. At the same time they would shape the CJG to maximize its contribution to climate protection.
It is hard to envision a CJG being implemented by legislation alone without a context of popular demand for change. And without mass popular mobilization it is difficult to imagine a CJG surviving the probable onslaught of those who have rolled back other full employment programs in the past. But it is hard to envision a better program around which to promote such a popular mobilization. The climate crisis confronts us with a critical need that may help lift the idea of jobs for all from an idle speculation to a realistic possibility, indeed, a necessity.