Why We Need the Government to Create Not Just Jobs, but Good Jobs

Oct 17, 2011Richard Kirsch

A new book exhausts all the private sector possibilities, ultimately showing why the government has to ensure decent wages for all.

The millions of underemployed Americans today, working part-time or in jobs significantly beneath their skill level, underline a persistent feature of our workforce, starting long before the Great Recession: one out of four jobs pay sub-standard wages. Good Jobs America, a new book written by Paul Osterman and conceived with co-author Beth Shulman before her death, tackles this other half of the jobs crisis: the need to create more good jobs, with wages that can support a family.

A great strength of the book is the authors' creation of new data on low-wage jobs, bringing to light how little so many of us bring home from our work. The authors are exquisitely cognizant of the current policy and political climate that looks skeptically on the ability of government to intervene in the "power and correctness of the market." As a result, much of the book carefully examines the arguments and strategies that rely on non-government interventions in the labor market to increase job quality, as well as a refutation of conservative arguments against public policies to increase wage levels. In thoroughly exploring other avenues of change, and doing their best but ultimately failing to identify promising paths that don't rely principally on government, Osterman and Shulman make it clear why they conclude "what is needed is a broader political, social, and economic environment that supports progressive employment strategies." By exhausting the limits of other avenues, the book ultimately ends up making the case that we must have government action to ensure decent jobs for all.

The authors refute the "myth" that education is the solution to the problem by pointing out the obvious: "There will always be hotel room cleaners and food servers and medical assistants and the myriad of other low-wage jobs." Education may help an individual, but it won't solve the large societal problem. Furthermore, they review research that finds "most adults holding these jobs will not escape them." They describe numerous programs developed in industries like health care and hospitality to create career ladders for low-wage employees and -- while doing everything they can to accentuate the positive -- find that few of the programs are sustainable or result in many employees moving into better jobs.

The persistence of the problem is underlined in their discussion of another common bugaboo: immigration. Data they assembled show that from 1994 to 2010, while the proportion of immigrants in the workforce increased by 70 percent, the percentage of jobs that were low-wage stayed the same, 24 percent. Their data also reveal that while immigrants held more low-wage jobs in 2010, the percentage of immigrants who took jobs that were below the low-wage standard remained at just below 40 percent.

As the authors deeply believe that employers need to be part of the solution, they look closely at the problems that employers face in raising wages and promoting career training. But they find that "high-road" employers are few and far between, motivated by the rare business with a mission or CEO that is committed to decent wages and benefits. They find no evidence that a Costco has any impact on a retail job market dominated by WalMart, which when it comes into a market suppresses wages in its competitors. The history of labor partnerships also is not promising. Levi-Strauss' attempt at paying good wages collapsed under the pressure of foreign competition and when an agreement between the hotel employee union HERE and San Francisco hotels to trade employer flexibility for more training and wage increases melted in the face of non-union competition.

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The authors also highlight community and non-union worker organizing that has led to the passage of local ordinances and agreements with large employers. But they admit that these are few and far between, with the biggest benefit being a change in the political relationships of power rather than the creation of many new good jobs.

Their exploration of what could be the most promising new labor market for good jobs, green jobs, is very telling. They do a marvelous job of detailing the competing forces in Boston when the city government tried to balance the trade-off between weatherizing more homes or paying higher wages. It negotiated with multiple actors: community action agencies, environmental groups, unions, big and small contractors. The results were not promising. On the other hand, Portland, OR provided a model of success due to the rare cooperation between community and environmental groups and unions, bolstered by strong political leadership.

Which gets us back to government. The 2009 economic stimulus legislation required that prevailing wages, following the Davis-Bacon law, be paid for weatherization jobs. But the Obama administration interpreted that as prevailing wages in the already low-wage weatherization industry. That was a lost opportunity to use a major investment in green jobs to set a foundation for good jobs.

So what will work? Looking at the history of what has worked in our past -- legislation and regulations promoting wage standards, job safety, and unionization -- they conclude simply, "The government made bad jobs into good." There's plenty of ammo in the book showing that minimum wage laws do work and that unionization leads to better jobs.

The authors say that creating a climate for good jobs requires a shock to the system that will come from "public policy or employee voice." Actually, they recommend both: laws that raise wages and protect union organizing, accompanied by cooperation between community groups, more internally democratic unions, and small business associations.

On the next to last page, the authors finally reach for a broader strategy that meets the political challenge of our times. Ending where they began -- "the gap between the low-and-middle-class is collapsing" -- they conclude that "the reality is that strengthening job quality is a middle-class issue" and making the concerns of low-wage workers compelling "requires a broader political base than is currently at hand."

Building that political base will require making more than a rhetorical link between the concerns of the shrinking middle class and the working poor. We will need to build a movement that unites "the 99%" to those pushing for a broader jobs agenda, that demands that we not only create more jobs, but that every job pays enough to support a family with security and dignity. The agenda must look beyond the workplace to broader systems of opportunity and social insurance: education, health care, retirement, and leave policies. Organizing that movement must link across communities, exemplified by efforts like the Caring Across Generations campaign that is uniting unions and community groups to create two million good jobs for those who care for seniors and people with disabilities. We need to build a political movement through campaigns at the local, state, and federal level that demand good jobs for everyone in America.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a Senior Adviser to USAction, whose book on the campaign to win reform will be published in 2012. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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