New Social Contract:
The Need for Radical Reforms in the Fight for Jobs and a Living
(page 1 of 2)
By Carl Davidson
The Jobs and
Living Wage movement spreading across the country is a response
to three main features of today's economy: 1) the vast and growing
inequality of income and living standards across the entire population,
2) growing insecurity in middle-income sectors due to downsizing
and the redefinition of work, and 3) harsh and degrading poverty
for the structurally unemployed and urban welfare populations.
organizations and coalitions fighting these conditions have put
forward a diverse collection of demands and programs. The New Party
and ACORN, IAF, AFSCME, and a number of local labor councils, for
instance, have launched mass campaigns in a dozen major cities.
They are demanding a $7.70-an-hour minimum wage for any business
with substantial city contracts, subsidies or tax abatements. Other
groups have focused on the federal government, and are pressing
several bills in Congress that would create jobs by spending more
funds on infrastructures--schools, roads, bridges--and restoring
cuts in welfare. The Labor Party is trying to build support for
a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing jobs for all at decent wages.
While the various
packages of demands, programs and legislation each have strengths
and weaknesses, all of them can be endorsed as making a positive
contribution to an immediate and desperate situation facing the
poor and unemployed.
Yet as socialists
we are called upon to do more than simply get behind the local movements.
We have a radical understanding of modern capitalism that goes beyond
the immediate need to defend its tattered safety net.
for instance, that the current job crisis and draconian cutbacks
inflicted on the poor are not mainly the results of the usual ups-and-downs
of the business cycle. Nor is it the consequence of lingering pockets
of rural poverty bypassed in the country’s transition to a
modern industrial society. Those crises had been met, however inadequately,
by the social contract wrung out of the ruling class in all the
reform packages from FDR’s New Deal to LBJ’s Great Society.
In exchange for a relative degree of class peace, this contract
redistributed wealth downward in the form of social security, unemployment
insurance, public works like rural electrification and the interstate
highway system, collective bargaining, Medicaid, Medicare and AFDC.
crisis of the poor and unemployed is quite different from the cyclical
crises of the past. Instead it is the consequence of some deep structural
changes that have permanently abolished large numbers of jobs in
the low-skilled blue-collar and middle management sectors of the
labor force. While new jobs have been created in other service sectors,
their skill levels and racially restricted location requirements
have generally excluded the low-income unemployed from filling them.
The result is
a growing sector of the inner city population that is being excluded
from the labor force altogether. Their plight is exacerbated by
a power elite that opposes full employment in any case. Every time
the official jobless rate gets down to 6%, the Federal Reserve Board
goes into a panic over a fear of inflation, and adjusts interest
rates to curb new job creation. To survive, many are forced into
the underground economy, which in turn has lead to the vast expansion
of the prison population.
Some of the
liberal elites are disturbed by this situation, which they describe
as a “social time bomb.” However, the Gingrich-Clinton
“bipartisan” right-center coalition currently in charge
sees things differently. They want to make life even harsher for
the poor, apparently with the hope that this will force their elderly
to die sooner and their young people to have fewer children. They
claim that the shredding of the safety net is for the more benign
purpose of pushing people into employment. But since anyone with
even a superficial knowledge of economic realities knows the jobs
aren’t there, we have to conclude that truth behind “ending
welfare as we know it” resides in the more sinister motive.
facing progressives is quite difficult. The current policies and
conditions have dramatically exacerbated the division of the working
class into two broad groups. One is mainly white, suburban, strung
out on credit but still employed and living under the relative comfort
of the old social contract, even if its tattered and worn thin.
The other is mainly minority nationality, urban and now living in
nearly intolerable and hopeless conditions outside the social contract.
One group is controlled by the carrot, the other by stick--and the
racial dimension of the divide is the key to the establishment’s
ability to maintain a relative degree of social stability.
In these circumstances,
a progressive strategy based on simply restoring the old social
contract and extending its reach by redistributing the wealth is
not likely to be very effective. The recent defeat of single-payer
national health care is instructive in this regard. The problem
was that a good majority of the people already had health insurance
of some sort. Many figured that if more people who couldn’t
afford insurance would become insured, their piece of the health
care pie was in danger of being reduced. Many listened sympathetically
to the arguments for universal care, but few could be mobilized
to do anything to win it.
can be done? Probably the best set of strategic guidelines for socialist
activists in the mass movements was put forward by Karl Marx himself
in the Communist Manifesto. Socialists, he argued, should take part
in all the movements and organizations of the working class. But
he added that they should distinguish themselves two ways. First,
in the movements of the present, they should look to the needs of
the future; second, in the battles launched by a part of the class,
they should take care to uphold the general interests of the class
as a whole.
We need to advance
a new social contract rooted in this perspective. It can’t
simply be a demand for socialism. It must be a set of demands and
programs rooted in immediate needs, but standing a good chance of
uniting a majority and pointing to future transformations. It must
also be a social contract that engages the arguments of the right
wing and exposes its bankruptcy. In terms of the Jobs and Living
Wage moments, such a contract would include programs like this:
for all who are able and want to work.
itself expresses the limitations of the current labor market--the
demand for work has outstripped the supply of jobs in unskilled
sectors, while the supply of jobs is greater than the current number
of qualified workers in high-tech sectors. When the market fails,
the government must act, either by encouraging new capital formation,
ie, new businesses in distressed areas, or by becoming the employer
it in public works projects. There is certainly enough work to be
done, either in repairing old infrastructures, rebuilding and reorganizing
the schools for up-to-date training, or launching new environmentally
friendly projects like solar power or Mag-Lev inter-urban high-speed
rail systems. More >>