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Let's Have a Real Conversation About Jobs

04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Amid a continuing crisis of double-digit unemployment in our country, Congress is finally debating a bill that would increase federal investment to create jobs. That the government is talking about its role in guiding the economy to produce needed work for unemployed Americans is undoubtedly a positive step. And yet the terms of the discussion, squabbling about whether the bill will prescribe a $15 billion investment or a $30 billion one, are another example of Democrats getting lost in the details of policy discussion.

What's really at stake here is the survival of perhaps the most endangered species in America: Its dwindling, almost non-existent middle class.

Don't get me wrong. The final size of the jobs bill will have an impact on working people in this country. But the real policy debate isn't just about the amount of investment, but about whether or not the types of jobs we create will lead people out of poverty. For that to happen, America needs a new New Deal--one that addresses the reality of today's changing economy and uses inspiration from local and regional victories to ensure that the jobs created by public efforts are jobs that pay living wages.

Good News, Bad News

The good news is that, for the first time since the 1930s, we have leadership in Washington that recognizes that government has a bigger role to play in the economy--that it is not just a spectator watching on the sidelines, but can use its influence to actively help bring about the broadly shared prosperity that business will never be able to create on its own.

America's first New Deal influenced job creation in much the same way that Congress is proposing to do today. However, it also included another critical element: collective bargaining. The ability of workers to fairly negotiate with their employers is what allowed for the jobs that were created then to become good jobs that paid living wages and provided health care. This produced a class structure in our country that looked like the fat man at the circus: bulging at the middle. Unfortunately, America today looks more like an hourglass, with a heavy top, a large bottom, and only a skinny waist in between.

The bad news we must face is that we are only remembering half of this story, and we're forgetting the rest. Washington is talking about job creation but not about the quality of the jobs it will produce. We know from the past two decades that new employment and economic growth alone are not enough to create social wellbeing. In fact, it was under the last two decades of significant economic expansion that the hourglass class structure took its disturbing shape. Even in the flush years of the 1990s, serious inequalities flourished; in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the past economic boom, five of the ten fastest growing occupations paid less than $10 per hour for entry-level positions.

America's New New Deal will undoubtedly look different from the New Deal of the 1930s. We don't live in an industrial economy anymore, people work differently today, and we are integrated into international markets. We can't simply resurrect past policies without acknowledging changing circumstances. However, some foundational principles will remain the same. In order to rebuild a healthy, robust middle class, we must revamp the two institutions upon which the original New Deal rested: collective bargaining and a public sector that actually represents the public's interest.

1) Making Collective Bargaining the Norm

Collective bargaining must be the top priority of any jobs-creation program in America. The manufacturing jobs in auto and steel that led to the creation of our country's middle class were ones that offered living wages and decent benefits. But they didn't start out that way. The wages and benefits they provided grew as a result of workers getting together and organizing, as well as a president who used his bully pulpit to encourage them to bargain with their employers. Let's do that again. If we're creating jobs, let's make collective bargaining the norm in the workplaces that receive public support and beyond.

2) Creating A Public Sector That Serves the Public's Interest

America's middle class began to unravel in the 1980s, spurred on by the policies of the Reagan administration. In addition to a frontal assault on unions, that administration used tax policies to undermine job standards. In their "America: What Went Wrong?" series in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the early 1990s, journalists Donald Bartlett and James Steele documented that the Reagan White House created tax laws which specifically allowed companies to write off the expense of exporting jobs from their domestic taxes.

We now have a president who used his State of the Union address to issue a call to "finally slash the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas, and give those tax breaks to companies that create jobs right here in the United States of America." Pushing forward President Obama's proposal should be a huge part of any jobs bill worth its salt. Such an action would restore the public sector's role in serving the public's interest instead of being at the beck and call of business.

Inspiration From Local Victories

While these proposals may not be a part of the current discussion in Washington, there are examples at the local and regional levels across the country of how progressives are finding their voice--and in so doing are planting the seeds of social and political innovation. A New New Deal at the federal level should be based on their example.

Local and regional victories include groundbreaking ordinances in Los Angeles mandating that recipients of city financial assistance and lessees of city-owned properties pay their workers a living wage; Community Benefits Agreements in Denver ensuring that developers benefitting from a local "urban renewal district" meet high job standards; deals brokered by community and labor groups in New Haven that conditioned the city's approval of a hospital's expansion on its ability to address public concerns about gentrification, traffic, and fair bargaining practices; and local advocates' successful push in Atlanta to make sure that affordable housing and other public goods would result from the allocation of tax dollars to back the privately-developed Beltline Project.

All of these examples illustrate that, whether government is wearing its hat as the purchaser of private services, as the promoter of local economic development, or as arbiter of zoning and public land-use decisions, it is capable not only of helping to create jobs, but also of making sure that these are jobs that pay.

Taking Back the Debate

The policies needed to rebuild a democratic economy constitute nothing short of a new New Deal for America. Reviving collective bargaining, closing tax loopholes, and using the public sector to reward companies that do right both by their workers and the broader community are policies at the very core of this agenda.

The danger with the current jobs debate is that we risk repeating the health care fiasco by getting bogged down in policy minutia. As long as we're stuck haggling over dollar figures, we may win the intellectual debate, but we'll lose the war of gaining public support.

Going into the midterm elections, we should be communicating to voters that, ultimately, the real jobs debate is about far more than coming up with the money for a short-term federal expenditure. Our message is simple: good jobs are ones that pay middle class wages, creating them means giving people the power to bargain collectively with their bosses, and it also means ending tax giveaways for companies that are not acting in the public good.

Such a message is not just a means of communicating the core values behind a jobs bill. It's the best way we know to create a healthy American middle class again.

Today's post is cross-posted atDailyKos.