Job Guarantees, Collective Bargaining and the Right to Strike

“Guaranteed jobs programs, creating floors for wages and benefits, and expanding the right to collectively bargain are exactly the type of roles that government must take to shift power back to workers and our communities,” — Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

“By strengthening their bargaining power and eliminating the threat of unemployment once and for all, a federal job guarantee would bring power back to the workers where it belongs.” — Mark Paul, William Darity, Jr., and Darrick Hamilton,

“Support for workers’ right to organize and collectively bargaining would, of course, be part of any such effort.” — Harry J. Holzer

 “This, then, was the broad issue to which Samuelson and Solow’s paper was addressed: Were price stability and full employment – or, as it was sometimes put, were price stability, full employment and collective bargaining – compatible in the America of their times?” — James Forder

Under conditions of full employment, can a rising spiral of wages and prices be prevented if collective bargaining, with the right to strike, remains absolutely free?  Can the right to strike be limited generally in a free society in peace-time? — William Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society

Everyone is talking about Job Guarantees these days and no one appears to have thought through the implications of such a policy for collective bargaining with anything like the thoroughness that William Beveridge did in 1946. In 1960, Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow concluded their discussion of full employment and inflation with a disclaimer:

We have not here entered upon the important question of what feasible institutional reforms might be introduced to lessen the degree of disharmony between full employment and price stability. These could of course, involve such wide-ranging issues as direct price and wage controls, anti-union and antitrust legislation, and a host of other measures hopefully designed to move the American Phillips’ curves downward and to the left.

We are told by the adherents of Modern Monetary Theory that inflation is not a problem. The government just sops up inflation by taxing back some of the money it has created to fund the program expenditures. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems like what they say. At the same time, though, at the same time, advocates of a Federal Job Guarantee tout the increased bargaining power that it would give to workers.

Usually that bargaining power is not specified as collective bargaining power. Harry Holzer’s comment is the exception. Senator Gillibrand’s mention of Job Guarantee and expanding the right to bargain collectively may have just been a smorgasbord of good things and not meant to imply advocacy of collective bargaining specifically for people in the Job Guarantee program. To use a distinction Richard Freeman and James Medoff adopted from Albert O. Hirschman, the “bargaining power” mentioned by Paul, Darity and Hamilton could as easily refer to the “exit” of individual choice as to the “voice” of collective action.

Well, who doesn’t want to see workers gain more bargaining power? That is not a rhetorical question. To ask it is to call attention to the very powerful political forces that have seen to it, especially over the last 40 years or so, that they don’t. Could it be that the advocates of the Job Guarantee have not done their opposition research? Do they suppose that the regime of supply-side, trickle-down, corporate neo-liberalism was inadvertent?

I am not so certain that the Kochs and the Waltons and Jeff Bezos and Jamie Dimon are going to shrug their shoulders and say, “O.K., workers, your turn now. Best of luck!” Regardless of whatever MMT says about inflation, the “inflation!” card will be played against any proposed job guarantee election platform, as will the “socialism!” card, the “moochers!” card, the “boondoggle!” card, and, yes, even the “lump-of-labor!” card.

In individual terms, bargaining power comes down to the alternative options if one quits a job — what is the Best Alternative if There is No Agreement (BATNA). Collectively, bargaining power is determined by strike leverage, which is a mutual perception of the relative capabilities of the two parties to endure a prolonged work stoppage. A Job Guarantee would appear to give additional leverage to unions in the event of a work site closure or the hiring of replacement workers. The amount of leverage depends on what the rules are regarding the eligibility of striking workers for a Job Guarantee. Presumably, workers currently on strike would be ineligible. But what happens if the employer hires scabs (otherwise known as “replacement workers”)? What if the company closes down and moves away? Would there be a waiting period before discharged workers become eligible for the Job Guarantee?

And what about the rights of the Job Guarantee workers themselves to collectively bargain and to strike? Until relatively recently public employees were denied the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike. Even today those rights are not universally acknowledged:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service… A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable.

Who said that? Governor Scott Walker in 2011? Chris Christie? No, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in a 1937 letter to the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. Scott Walker cited FDR in a 2013 speech. Could a Job Guarantee program that denied participants the right to strike become a Trojan horse for rolling back public sector unionism? That is not a rhetorical question.

The conspicuous lacunae in the Job Guarantee literature regarding collective bargaining and the right to strike strikes me as an elephant in the room. The fact that no one talks about it could not conceivably be because no one notices it. For what is at stake here is nothing less than the sovereignty of the State and its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In an astonishing paragraph in his essay on the “Crtique of Violence,” Walter Benjamin makes this not so much “clear” as available for deciphering.

Benjamin’s provocative claim, distilled from the writings of Georges Sorel and Carl Schmitt, is that “Organized labor is, apart from the state, probably today the only legal subject entitled to exercise violence.” Let that sink in…

Benjamin goes on to offer qualifications and explanations that address the inevitable objections to that statement. By conceding the political right’s standard objection to the labor strike as violent, however, Benjamin — again following Sorel — has isolated and emphasized the one circumstance in which it is not — the revolutionary general strike. This is not to discount the inevitability of retaliatory violence from the State.

The insertion of Benjamin’s argument into the debate on the Job Guarantee idea may seem esoteric to the casual reader. The reason it doesn’t seem esoteric to me is that I have spent the last 20 years studying the history of anti-labor rhetoric of the right and how it gets translated ultimately into seemingly innocuous “policy principles.” Public works as an employment stabilizer sounds like a good idea — what happened to it? Full employment after the war sounds like a good idea — what happened to it? The reduction of the hours of work sounds like a good idea — what happened to it? As John Stuart Mill rightly pointed out, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

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