A Federal Job Guarantee: The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights MovementRoundup
tags: civil rights, March on Washington, Economic Policy, full employment, Jobs Guarantee
Rep. Ayanna Pressley has served as the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’ 7th congressional district since 2019.
David Stein (twitter) is a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of African American Studies at UCLA and author of the forthcoming book, Fearing Inflation, Inflating Fears: The Civil Rights Struggle for Full Employment and the Rise of the Carceral State, 1929-1986.
The Covid-19 pandemic has served as a grave reminder of who suffers first, and worst, when the labor market falters. Our most marginalized workers are consistently the last ones hired and the first ones fired—a reality only made worse when crises strike. Nearly 2.4 million women have exited the workforce over the past year of the pandemic. That staggering number is disproportionately made up of Black and brown women. For these women in particular, recovering from this financial setback could take years.
The need for a Federal Job Guarantee could not be more urgent. A Federal Job Guarantee would establish a pathway to stable, unionized, living wage, employment for marginalized workers who consistently face discrimination. A Federal Job Guarantee would begin to close racial and gender income and wealth gaps, while meeting long-neglected community, physical, and social infrastructure needs. That is why, in February, Representative Ayanna Pressley, in partnership with community organizers, activists, and experts, introduced HRes 145, calling on the federal government to guarantee “a legally enforceable right to fair, dignified, and decently-remunerated employment for all eligible individuals living in the United States.”
Our work builds on the shoulders of the many activists who saw an enforceable right to a quality, public-sector job as a key component of the struggle for civil and human rights. The Federal Job Guarantee Resolution continues a long, yet too often unheralded, tradition of Black women shaping history of economic and public policy. Through the last 80 years, it has been Black women at the forefront of demands for full and fair employment. Our collective works seeks to carry the torch boldly lit by justice seekers and civil rights icons like Sadie Alexander, Ella Baker, and Coretta Scott King.
In the 1940s, the nation’s first Black economist, Sadie Alexander, stressed that full employment was the key solution for economic injustice. Alexander knew our nation had the capacity and the potential to reach full employment, and made the justification plain and clear: “If full employment…could be obtained for the destructive purposes of war, why can we not unite to achieve it for the constructive purposes of peace?”
It was no accident that the activist energy surrounding a job guarantee coalesced in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. Communities had seen the Works Progress Administration bring life back to their neighborhoods and cities. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted billions of trees; the Office of Price Administration managed inflation during a time of war. Sweeping economic goals were set and accomplished—but the promise of the New Deal and the post–World War II economy fell far short because communities of color and folks with disabilities were systematically left out.
That is precisely why the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom put a government guarantee to a job at the front of the civil rights agenda. The organizers of the March understood how economic justice and voting rights were tied together. And it was Coretta Scott King who brought the struggle from the streets to Capitol Hill through her organization, the National Committee for Full Employment. In partnership with Congressional Black Caucus cofounder Representative Augustus Hawkins, the movement for a federal job guarantee was driven by the fact that fair employment for Black workers could be made real only by full employment for all workers.