Jobs for All, Legalization for All, a Massive Public Works Program
(from Mass Strike magazine, Feb 2011 http://www.luxemburgism.lautre.net/spip.php?article118, PDF version http://www.luxemburgism.lautre.net/pdf/mass-strike-3.pdf(starting p.11))
By Eric Lerner and Lili Gomez
Why these demands now?
Today, in the United States and around the world, the working class faces a rapidly deepening crisis of mass unemployment. One in six workers in the US is unemployed, while in the African-American and Latino communities, one in four is out of work. Almost no country in the world has escaped this crisis and in some countries, like Spain, the scope of unemployment is far worse. Unless the steady rise in unemployed can be stopped and rolled back, the threat of layoffs will be used by both public and private employers to force workers to accept massive cuts in wages, pensions and working conditions. Such cuts will in turn slash consumption, pushing the global economy into deeper depression and sending unemployment soaring in a never-ending spiral. Jobs are therefore the central issue today for all workers, employed and unemployed.
Workers have begun to respond to the cuts in wages and living standards, and in some cases to the layoffs, with mass protests and even, as in Greece, one-day general strikes. These are essential steps. But so long as the protest demands are limited to stopping the cuts, stopping the layoffs, they will fail to do more than slow the rate of decline. To stop and reverse the layoffs we have to formulate demands that say what we are FOR, not just what we are against, that say what is our solution to the jobs crisis.
Since the crash of ’08, the experience of the “stimulus” and “bailout “ plans by governments around the world have shown clearly that the private sector cannot be begged or bribed to produce jobs, no matter how many trillions governments hand to the corporations. The private sector is still destroying jobs, and the bailout money is flowing straight to the pockets of the few tens of thousands of fantastically wealthy shareholders who own these corporations. So long as the markets continue to contract, so long as austerity plans spread across country after country, corporations have no reason to hire new workers. There are no new Chinas out there to open up new markets. The bailouts and the austerity plans are nothing but machines to funnel trillions from worker’s pockets directly to capitalists’ bank accounts.
Yet there is plenty of work to be done. Tens of millions of jobs are needed to build houses, schools and hospitals, to clean up the Gulf and other environmental disasters, to repair the crumbling infrastructure and to greatly expand essentials services. The only way to create jobs and to end the unemployment crisis is to reverse the flow of wealth from capital to labor, to have governments directly hire millions of workers for massive public works program to fill these social needs, financing this program by taxes on capitalist and corporate wealth. Therefore the demand for a massive public works program, with direct government employment, at prevailing wages must be a central demand of workers today. This is the way—the only way—to provide jobs for all.
On July 14, 2010, the California Federation of Labor, the largest state union federation in the US, adopted a resolution supporting this demand for a massive public works program. While there is a big difference between resolutions and actual action, the unification of the working class behind this demand is now a priority for activists not only in the US but everywhere.
Here in New Jersey, where the authors organize, this demand for a public works program has been endorsed by several immigrant and community groups— and it has become the demand of other groups around the country as well. In this campaign, we have linked the demands of Jobs for All, a Public Works Program to the demand of Legalization for ALL. We have set up a NJ Jobs for All Campaign organization to unite immigrant rights, community and anti-war groups, unions and others behind these demands. We call on activists to set up such Jobs for All Campaigns everywhere and to coordinate their activities on a national and even international scale.
Jobs and Legalization are linked
Why do we link the demand for Jobs for All to the demand for Legalization for All? Quite simply because you can’t get one without the other. Today in the US, millions of workers in the two communities most affected by unemployment—African-Americans and Latinos—can’t get government jobs. For Latinos, it is because millions are undocumented immigrants. For African- Americans it is because the racist justice system has given millions conviction records that bar them from government—and many other –jobs. To get jobs for ALL we need legalization for all so that everyone in this country has the right to work here. This means immediate legalization without exception for the undocumented and opening up of jobs for those with past convictions. Unless these two communities can participate fully in a public works program, the movement for such a program will be fatally weakened. To get power, we need unity.
This is true not just in the United States, but everywhere—immigrant workers must be an integral part of the movement for a public works program. In nearly every country the undocumented status of millions of immigrants allows employers to exploit them, pushing down wages and working conditions for ALL workers. Only legalization for all can end this and only legalization can integrate immigrants into the fight for a public works program.
But equally, immigrants can’t win legalization without at the same time helping to build a movement for a public works program, for jobs for all. Today, with rising unemployment, governments and political parties are trying to pit native-born and immigrant workers against each other, competing for the same shrinking number of jobs. Only a movement that demands jobs for all, and shows how that can be practically achieved, has a chance to unite immigrant and native-born workers into a force that can win.
What is a Public Works Program?
So what is a public works program? The aim of a public works program is not merely to create jobs, but equally important it is to produce the goods and services that the working class so badly needs—to provide decent affordable housing for all, to provide free higher education for all, to greatly improve education at all levels, to provide quality health care for all, to provide modern, rapid mass transportation, to clean up the environment and to research, develop and produce new, cheap, clean sources of energy. There is vast work that needs to be done not just by construction workers, but by factory workers, by teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers scientists and artists.
In every country in the world there are vast unmet social needs. Filling them will easily absorb those who are now out of work. For example, in the United States, less housing has been produced for decades than is needed to keep up with population growth and the decay of older housing. Eliminating the shortage of 10 million units of housing over a decade will alone create 2.5 million new jobs. In education, class sizes have to be radically reduced to give a quality education to all. In addition, far more people would attend college if they could afford it, so making college free, as it is in some countries today, would require a major expansion and the hiring of tens of thousands of professors. Together this program would create 6.5 million jobs.
Filling other urgent needs—adequate mass transit systems in every major city, rebuilding our bridges, tunnels, and flood control systems, building new hospitals, cleaning up capitalism’s many messes like the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill and finally providing the resources to create new clean energy sources will, we can estimate, create another 5 million jobs, for a total of 14 million direct government jobs (see Table 1) For each government job created, money will flow into the rest of the economy because these workers will be spending far more money than they did when they were unemployed. This additional effect will probably create at least one indirect job for each direct government job. So the program as whole could create 28 million jobs—about the same as the number of unemployed in mid-2010.
Can it be done?
Could this actually be done? Well we know it was done—in the last Great Depression, a working-class mass movement forced the government to institute massive public works programs in the United States–the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Work Progress Administration (WPA). The Civil Works Administration, begun in the fall of 1933, lasted only four and a half months. Within the first week of its operation, it employed 1.1 million workers and employment peaked at 4.2 million. The total cost of the project was $30 billion in 2006 dollars.
CWA was able to accomplish so much in so little time because it was based on direct government employment. No contracts were let, no contractors involved—the government employed the labor directly—at union wages. Getting rid of the contractors was vital then and is again today. Contractors and their subcontractors absorb at least two-thirds of the money governments spend on projects today, leaving less than a third for wages for workers. In addition, there are huge delays in the contracting process. Direct government employment ends both problems, with no dollars going to profit. And if the government got things done quickly in the 1930’s and again in World War II, where entire factories were built—by the government—in six months or less, it can do things equally fast today.
The CWA enraged the corporations and political pressure caused the Roosevelt administration to terminate it. However, a militant and growing movement of unemployed workers forced the government to again institute a giant jobs program—the WPA. Unlike CWA, WPA did not provide union wages and workers had to battle constantly to raise wages and to preserve the program itself.
On the other hand, WPA lasted six years, not four and half months, so its accomplishments were on an even grander scale: 600,000 miles of highway, 116,000 bridges, 5,600 new schools, 30,000 new public buildings, countless parks and recreation areas. Again no contracts—with their profits and corner-cutting—were involved. The quality of the work is evident today, 70 years later, in nearly every community in the country. The WPA did not only build things, it employed artists, actors, and musicians to paint murals, put on plays, and concerts. It hired historians to create local histories, photographers to document the Depression. It mobilized the talents of eight million workers—in a country with less than half the USA’s present population.
Workers in the 1930’s fought to get a prevailing wage on these projects and workers need to demand the same today. The public works wages can’t undercut other wages—rather they should set the standard, bringing up other wages to that level.
Take back the money
But the politicians and critics say: “there is no money for such a huge public works program.” Indeed, such a program would be expensive. As shown in table 1, such a program for the US alone would cost $1.5 trillion a year. However, to say the money is not there is just a lie. The money is there—the capital and their corporations have it and they stole it from us. We need to take it back. Over the last 35 years, nearly 20% of national income in the US has been transferred from workers to capital—and much the same has happened the world over. Before, nearly 60% of national income went to workers wages, 40% to capitalist profits and managers’ income. Now it is 60% to capital, 40% to labor. Put another way, 20% of all income has been transferred to the richest ½% of the population.
There are many ways that it can be taken back. For one, the destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have to be ended immediately. All the vast sums that now go to armaments production and development have to be re-directed as well, along with the vast productive resources involved. For the arms industry wastes not just money but the brains of millions of skilled workers, scientists and engineers and the most advanced and productive factory machinery in the US. Those resources can be redirected to the tasks of the public works program.
Second, the stolen money has to be returned—a tax on the banks to take back the bailout trillions, a tax on oil companies to retrieve the trillions stolen in price increases, and most important a tax on the capitalists’ wealth itself. Working people in the US pay 3% and 4% of the value of their homes in property taxes, but the stock and bonds of the rich are untaxed. A modest 5% annual tax on the wealth of these who have financial assets above $2 million dollars would alone raise $1.2 trillion a year, 80% of the cost of a public works program. Together these measures, as shown in Table 1, would raise more than $2 trillion a year, enough to substantially close the US federal budget deficit as well. In other countries, very similar figures can be arrived at.
Finally, in many countries, the budget is drained by debt payments to the banks. But the private financial system is bankrupt—it is kept afloat only through huge government bailouts. Private finance today operates only as a giant black hole soaking up money. We must demand the Socialization of Finance—state ownership of ALL finance, and running the state institutions democratically. This would wipe out the debts and free that money for social needs.
These are just some ways of taking the money back. Others can be suggested. The key thing is that the money comes from them , the capitalists—not from us , the workers.
Why ask the government to do it?
But, many will object, why demand that the government create jobs and rebuild America? Isn’t the government an inefficient, bloated bureaucracy that can’t do anything right? Look at the state of the schools, some will say. Others will ask—isn’t the government going to do what the corporations want in any case? Isn’t it inherently corrupt, and undemocratic? How can we expect it to do anything in favor of the workers? Wouldn’t it be better to try to build up our own economy, outside the corporations’ control, with cooperatives?
Now, we could immediately reply and ask those who think “government” can do nothing beneficial, “what about the WPA and its thousands of schools and parks, what about Social Security and unemployment compensation, the Civil Rights Acts, and Medicare?” But we need to go deeper to overcome the last thirty years of capitalist myth-making about “the government”.
What is essential here is how we look at the world—as mythology, or as historical process. In mythology, the world consists of unchanging “things” whose basic character is described by myth—tidy descriptions or stories that may sound convincing, but exclude anything that contradicts them. In today’s neoliberal mythology governments—all governments at all times— are inefficient, clumsy, bureaucratic and wasteful, while the free market is efficient, technologically advanced and, in the long run, beneficial for all. (Just ignore that little mess in the Gulf of Mexico!) .
The other way of looking at the world is to see it as composed not of things, but of evolving historical processes, not changeless myths. If we look at governments over hundreds or even thousands of years one thing is clear: government arises out of the conflicts of classes—groups of people who share common economic interests and a common role in the economy—and throughout their existence they respond to those conflicts. What is also clear is that any specific government, because of its structure and history, responds far more to one class, the ruling class of the time, than it does to any other class.
Today, governments in every country in the world respond to the interests and wishes of the capitalist class first and foremost. Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than in the United States, where most US Senators are themselves wealthy capitalists and where every represantative and executive at every level who are not themselves capitalists have “for sale” signs around their necks. Those who contribute the huge sums used in electoral campaigns can dictate exactly what decisions are made. To call this “corruption” is to fundamentally misunderstand it—this is how capitalist government is designed and structured to work: in favor of capitalists.
But capitalist governments can be compelled to create programs—like public education, like the WPA—that benefit workers. It is exactly those programs that the capitalists hate, vilify and destroy if they can.In the past forty years capitalist media have drummed into everyone’s head that governments—meaning those programs like public education that help workers—were useless and incompetent. At the same time they have been making deep cuts in funding just those services, crippling them. It is this self-justifying circle—“the government does not work, and to prove it we’ll cut it even further”—that has convinced millions of workers that the “government” can do nothing right.
Take the example of public education. Up until 1976 in the US, as in many other countries, the percentage of young people graduating from college rose, increasing five-fold to 25% over 30 years. Such a shift was essential in an increasingly technological economy. But in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, under Carter and Reagan, there was a huge shift in government priorities away from education and towards armaments. With the economy stagnant, capitalism has less and less use for education.
The result over the past 30 years is that the percentage of college graduates among US youth has also stagnated, even falling among men. The cause is easy to see—the costs to the student of public higher education have more than doubled in this period and the share of total costs paid by students has risen by 30% in just the past decade. For two- thirds of the population a college degree has become unaffordable.
This has had a major impact on high schools as well. Realistically, students’ main motivation to study in high school is getting into college, and the main (although not only) motivation in going to college is getting that degree. With college degrees dubious for a large majority of the population, that motivation and thus achievement in high schools are crippled—a crippling the capitalists then blame on teachers and public education! As jobs for even college graduates become rarer, employers are requiring higher degrees, shrinking further the elite that can afford many years of education and further drying up motivation for those who can not.
A massive public works program could solve this problem by making all higher education free and spending the $200 billion a year need to expand universities and to provide the teachers and other resources, including a major reduction in class size, needed by high schools to prepare students for college.
There is no necessity either that government projects be run bureaucratically, although that is the way things are done now. We should, as part of a public works program, be demanding that the projects be run democratically, with decisions made by elected boards representing both workers on the projects and the communities benefiting from them. Obviously, such a democratic structure will be very hard to win from the government, but it is important to make it a goal. Democratic structures will not only make the project far more effective in delivering the goods and services that the working class needs, it will make it far harder for the government to cut back the programs in the future. Experiments with such community-workers boards running factories are being tried right now on a small scale in Venezuela, and they do work.
How can we win?
How could we possibly win such demands which are certain to be opposed by the mighty with all their might and wealth? Since the capitalists control the government, what can we do to force them to give up such a large concession? Certainly, NOT by doing what the left in the US so often does: rely on the Democrats. When President Obama, still the senator from Illinois, contributed his vote to the initial bank bailout of 2008, few on the left questioned this dire contradiction to his promise of hope and change in Washington. Yet the succeeding year and half of his presidency leaves little doubt that the American public has been duped once again. Perhaps for those who believed they had voted for the lesser of two evils there is comfort in the belief that things potentially would have been worse under McCain, but the fact remains that little difference if any exists between Democratic and Republican governance. Rising unemployment, rising rates of foreclosure, continuation and escalation of war, catastrophic global environmental degradation, lack of affordable basic health and housing, a deteriorating public sector, and a continued funneling of public resources to bail out and subsidize private corporations are just a few of our major concerns that have not been addressed and that millions of Americans wait frustrated for government to resolve.
Many activists put energy into electing Obama—very few put any into building a real independent opposition party. But what has changed since Bush left office? Have jobs stopped disappearing? Have the trillions stopped flowing from the government to the banks? Have the ICE raids and deportations stopped? Have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stopped? Has the torture chamber at Guantanamo closed? Has the governments stopped claiming in Court that the President can detain and hold whoever he wants without trial or charge? What has changed except the complexion of the President (and, oh yes, his grammar)?
If any lesson has been learned it is that we can wait no more. We can only rely on our own organization and action. The only way to win a public works program, to win jobs and legalization for all, is the way a public works program was won in the 1930’s—by a radical mass movement that threatens the power of the capitalists. The WPA was not the result of Roosevelt’s generosity. It was the result of years of mass organizing of the employed and unemployed, mainly by the Communist and Socialist Parties of the US and by other socialist groups. Over a five-year period this organizing resulted first in local unemployed councils, then in national organizations, and finally through a merger of many unemployed and community groups, in a million-member organization, the Workers Alliance of America, which united immigrants and native-born, employed and unemployed workers in one democratically-organized movement. During this period, unity of employed and unemployed workers led to a mass strike wave, including city-wide general strikes in 1934 in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Toledo.
This mass–organizing process was neither easy nor short. But it frightened the rulers of that time into making concessions they would never have otherwise made. The same situation exists today. The only way to win is to build an independent mass movement with organization at all levels, from neighborhood to nation. What scares the corporations and the capitalists that control them is workers’ independent, democratic organization. We are many, they are few, and they know it. They rule only because we are divided and disorganized. Their social rule is threatened if a mass movement can organize and unify millions of workers.
They do not fear any top-down organizations, no matter their size. Leaders can always be bought off or, if necessary, destroyed. But if a mass movement arises that really organizes democratically at all levels, where workers feel that “we are all leaders”, then capitalists and their government will give concessions to attempt to stop the organizing process. They will fear the movement’s growth more than the losses the concessions cost them. That is how concessions were actually won in the last Great Depression, and much more recently how, in February 2009, the month-long general strikes in the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique won major concessions.
Today, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, capitalists will make concessions only when faced with the threat of loss of power. To think otherwise is to truly ignore reality. To try to make friends with Senators and Representatives, to lobby, to placate them, to give them platforms at our rallies, to work with them to formulate “realistic” policies is the shortest path to political suicide. What we need to do is to build a movement that will strike fear into the hearts of those who really rule, fear for the existence of their rule of the few. Concessions from them and victories for us will follow from that fear.
Stabilization—or more war? The WPA, CWA and other public works programs stabilized the US economy in the mid-1930’s and stopped the downwards cycle of layoffs and falling consumption that had existed since 1929. Between 1935 and 1937, WPA employment peaked at 3.5 million and unemployment dropped by 5 million. A public works program could do the same thing today, not only in the US, but worldwide. The key is to transfer money from capital to labor.
In the 1930’s as today there were no good alternatives to such a program. In Germany, where the Nazis crushed the divided German working class, they imposed their own “Public works” program—a giant rearmament program that prepared for World War II. Nowhere did the private sector lead the way out of the unemployment crisis—nor can it today.
To be sure, we believe that such concessions will be partial and temporary, liable to be withdrawn at any moment the movement weakens. The WPA did not end the Great Depression, which ended only in the catastrophe of WWII, and the program itself ended before the war began. In our view, such gains can become permanent and the new depression ended only when the power of capitalism is destroyed and the movement that has won such concessions can become the basis for the establishment of new institutions of workers democratic rule—the basis for socialism.
By no means does everyone have to agree with that assessment in order to work together in a movement behind Jobs for All, Legalization for All and a Public Works Program. Indeed such a movement can succeed in bringing together what have until now been disparate issue-oriented fights. It can unite those fighting for immigrant rights, the labor movement, environmentalist, housing, and anti-war activists, because it addresses all these issues. To fund the public works program the wars must end, and the program itself must address the key problems of the environment and new sources of clean, cheap energy.
The first step towards building such a movement, which has already begun on a small scale, is to build Jobs for All Campaign committees that can work to win the existing organizations of the working class—immigrant groups, unions, community and environmental and peace organizations—to these demands, to gain their endorsement and their help in building mass events. The endorsement of the public works demand by the California State Federation of Labor is a good start. We urge all those who support these demands to work together with us and others to accomplish that first step.