At the 1944 Convention of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, a key leader in the civil rights and labor movements, proclaimed that “if full employment can be maintained in a war for destruction, it can also be maintained in peace for construction.” The United States had just emerged from World War II with a booming economy and nearly full employment, and many Americans saw major improvements in their living standards and working conditions. Anxious to hold on to these gains and maintain the full-employment economy, Randolph and other organizers within the labor movement started pressing Congress to pass the Full Employment Bill.
The bill was an outgrowth of the New Deal reform coalition and its attempt to continue the prosperous wartime economy in peacetime. Roosevelt and New Deal Democrats had run on full employment in the postwar economy, in addition to a broader program of social reforms. Republicans, on the other hand, offered a more modest policy to achieve employment goals “through private enterprise.” Ultimately, the Full Employment Act that passed Congress in 1946 was a watered-down version of Randolph’s vision, with no commitment to anything close to a jobs guarantee. But Randolph and many allies were prescient: They knew that the fight for a full-employment economy was not only a fight about economic policy but also a profoundly political one. If progressive forces could win an economy stuffed with good jobs, they would gain the political advantage for the long haul, making it possible to realize their entire progressive vision.
In many ways, Randolph’s insight continues to ring true. Even in a strong economy, workers have fought for more jobs—in fact, this is when workers have had the most leverage to do so. Bold jobs programs and full employment have long been linked to a strong economy in workers’ minds. According to new analysis of the American National Electorate Survey, since the 1940s, less-educated voters have “differentially support[ed] predistribution policies,” or in other words, a federal jobs guarantee, higher minimum wages, and policies that generally strengthen the workers’ positions in our economy.
Our current moment reflects some of the same lessons. While unemployment rates are low, the rates for those who are underemployed are twice as high and demands for an economy with more good jobs persist. Despite policy roadblocks, progressives should listen to this call and proffer a vision that puts bolder jobs programs like full employment back on the agenda.
In fact, one of the clearest findings from a new survey launched by the Center for Working Class Politics (CWCP) is the persistence of support for progressive jobs proposals as part of a broader economic strategy. In our first study, titled “Commonsense Solidarity,” we found that candidates who run on bread-and-butter economic issues like jobs policies fare better with working-class voters than candidates that do not. In the survey we just launched, “Trump’s Kryptonite,” respondents were given the choice between candidates with a variety of demographic characteristics and policy positions, including two jobs policies: one a more moderate and mainstream jobs proposal, and the other advocating a bold federal jobs guarantee. Both policies were broadly popular across the group of respondents, underscoring the continued importance of jobs policies for American voters.
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Democrats, regardless of class, overwhelmingly supported the federal jobs guarantee in our survey by a margin of nearly four to one, signaling the popularity of this proposal across the Democratic base. But our results revealed important differences in support for these policies based on the party and class of respondents. First, and most significantly, while both policies were popular across the pool of respondents, the progressive jobs guarantee was most popular among working-class respondents—and not just those who identified as Democrats but also working-class independents and Republicans as well. Importantly, working-class people from either party were more likely to prefer progressive economic policies than their middle- and upper-class counterparts. Working-class independents were also much more likely to support a jobs guarantee than middle-class independents by as much as 20 percentage points. Not only did some Republicans and independents respond favorably to this policy, but the jobs guarantee was also the only economic policy proposal viewed positively by respondents across all parties, which could indicate that it is less likely to generate electoral backlash for a political candidate in a competitive district. In fact, we found that even in the face of Republican opposition messaging, broad support for a jobs guarantee actually increased slightly.
The power of the jobs message surprised even us. Our findings, it turns out, are consistent with ongoing research conducted by a team of researchers at Columbia University, which found that less-educated voters have consistently and overwhelmingly favored a federal jobs proposal for the past 80 years.
A lot has changed since A. Philip Randolph’s push for full employment, but Americans, and particularly working-class Americans, have not stopped craving bold, progressive jobs programs. The issue, however, is that despite serious difficulties engaging working-class voters, progressive jobs policies have not been a priority for today’s Democratic Party. The CWCP’s analysis of hundreds of campaign ads run in competitive districts in the 2022 midterm cycle shows that only 18 percent of Democratic candidates invoked jobs as a key campaign issue.
Despite the centrality of jobs programs in building the Democratic Party in the 1930s and 1940s, scholars like Gordon Lafer have helped explain why Democrats have left behind those broader jobs proposals, opting to put forward more moderate job training programs instead. One reason is that these programs involve less significant expenditures for lawmakers, making them seem easier to win in an increasingly gridlocked Congress. But they also have done little to address the macroeconomic changes, like globalization and deindustrialization, that have left many American workers struggling.
Over the last decade, we have seen a handful of progressive Democrats propose jobs proposals that get closer to the vision of the jobs guarantee, though none has gained much traction. Senator Cory Booker and Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, both members of the New Jersey delegation, have introduced a bill that would establish pilot programs around the country to provide job training, a guaranteed $15 minimum wage, and the same benefits as federal workers. Other proposals, like the one introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren, calls for federal investment in the care economy (particularly in child and elderly care).
Randolph continued his campaign for full employment into the 1960s and ’70s when he, working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, laid out a plan for abolishing the scourge of poverty within 10 years. Their plan, called “A Freedom Budget for All Americans,” can be politically and electorally instructive for us today. While most of the down-ballot races in the 2022 midterm elections were bolstered by high turnout and engagement in response to abortion ballots and referendums, there were also several hopeful signs for other progressive, jobs-related policies. Voters in Illinois overwhelmingly voted to add a Workers’ Rights Amendment to their state Constitution, codifying collective bargaining rights for all workers and prohibiting lawmakers in the state from passing “right to work” laws. Meanwhile, Democrats in Michigan who managed to wrest control of the state legislature away from Republicans, have put repealing anti-union laws and instituting worker protections at the top of their agenda.
These initiatives are promising, but they often better demonstrate the Democrats’ diversity of focus, more than their unity of purpose. Progressives have, as of yet, failed to present a powerful progressive jobs agenda that voters could readily recognize as a sure way to improve their lives. Randolph’s Freedom Budget rested on an astute political analysis that may provide progressives with a clearer unity of purpose.
The Freedom Budget framework linked a federal jobs guarantee to quality housing, medical care, education, and clean air, and water for all. A jobs guarantee presented a way to both increase aggregate demand and government tax revenue which, Randolph argued, would pay for those lofty goals. Randolph understood the importance of a real commitment to a strong jobs agenda. Democrats hoping to win in 2024 should take note: A jobs-focused campaign is not just a winning strategy but also the key to achieving a progressive agenda.