Full Employment and Freedom
n recent weeks, a federal job guarantee has rapidly gained momentum, with many Democrats backing the idea. That’s welcome news to those who have long advocated the goal — activists in black freedom movements and the National Jobs for All Coalition, as well as contemporary economists like William Darity Jr., Darrick Hamilton, Pavlina Tcherneva, and Stephanie Kelton.
The recent discussion is something of a throwback to a previous era. From 1944 to 1980, full employment proposals found themselves in the Democratic Party’s platform every four years. And in the 1970s, Coretta Scott King and others in the civil rights movement pushed for full employment as the next phase of their struggle for freedom.
Their efforts propelled the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act in 1978. Although the law lacked many of the most far-reaching components of earlier versions, it still contained important elements — especially the requirement that the Federal Reserve facilitate maximum employment.
Arguably, the Federal Reserve’s employment mandate had been in place since the 1946 Employment Act. But the Fed did not behave like it, deploying high interest rates and undermining worker bargaining power in the late 1950s and throughout the 1970s. Full employment advocates saw the need for further legislative affirmation that the Fed was indeed a creature of Congress and that its nominal independence did not place it beyond congressional authority.
They succeeded, at least partly. Yet even an act of Congress was not enough to get the Fed to genuinely prioritize their employment mandate. Unemployment has been allowed to creep up — particularly in communities of color — with little regard for the harm it inflicts on workers. The case of Humphrey-Hawkins shows that any legislative struggle will require significant social movements to secure its passage, and then ongoing maintenance of these movements to ensure the legislation is adhered to. If history is a guide, then these efforts may need to be more powerful than the Civil Rights Movement, which at its height made full employment such a key component of its agenda. If that is daunting, well, it should be. But an appropriate power analysis is vital for the years ahead.
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