Green Jobs and a True Right to Work

In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s novel of a “lost generation,” one of the characters gives a pithy description of how he went bankrupt: “gradually and then suddenly.” The same is often true for breakthrough policy ideas like the Green New Deal or a federal jobs guarantee. Once confined to the left fringes of political life, they’re suddenly being embraced (rhetorically, if not substantively) by the likes of Cory Booker and others not known for their radicalism.

Unlike Booker, whose proposal for a job guarantee “pilot program” is weak and tentative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t wasting any time. Her recent congressional resolution for a Green New Deal contains extremely ambitious language calling for “high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages…adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States,” coupled with a demand to end restrictions on unionization and collective bargaining.

By linking a green energy transition with the demand for full employment at high standards, AOC is helping to push a working-class environmentalism that could break climate politics out of the elite sphere of academics, policy wonks, and benevolent billionaires, where it’s been trapped for far too long. There will not be a mass audience for green politics if it’s perceived as a program of austerity and lowered living standards. As the window for effectively addressing the climate crisis rapidly closes, it needs that audience as soon as possible.

A Green New Deal with full employment wouldn’t just help us avert a full-blown climate catastrophe. By providing employment to everyone who’s willing and able to work, such a program could potentially lay the groundwork for a transition beyond capitalism to a new social order based on the values of solidarity, cooperation, and sustainability—which is precisely why the economic and political establishments are so opposed to it.

Socialists have long understood that capitalism’s constant creation of a “reserve army of labor” is one of its most powerful weapons against the working class. So long as employers are able to point toward the jobless outside the factory gates or the office door, they can exercise a tremendous degree of discipline over their workers. In his classic 1943 essay “The Political Aspects of Full Employment,” Marxist economist Michal Kalecki observed that under a full employment regime “the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow.”

We want full employment not because of a moral aversion to leisure and idleness. And we want it not just because there’s so much work that needs to be done to rebuild our country and stave off the climate crisis. We want full employment because it weakens the power of the boss and opens up opportunities for a wider transformation of social relations. It’s time to unite the employed and the unemployed, the organized and the unorganized, the secure and the precarious behind the demand for a genuine right to work—not just for a paycheck, but for social and ecological reconstruction, too.