We live in interesting times, when in not small areas of the internet left, the call for a a universal job guarantee, where people have an actual legal right to employment and the government would be the employer of last presort, is the sellout position that reinforces right-wing talking points. This is the basic point of the Bruenig couple and other Universal Basic Income advocates, who have no explanation for how the politics of a UBI are going to work and fall back, almost immediately upon questioning, on the point that “we need to teach people not to work so hard.” Well, uh, OK? Good luck with that! Anyway, Elizabeth Bruenig goes down this road in the Washington Post and the essay is just strange, filled with strawmen and odd arguments.
It isn’t that the programs are tonally identical. The right’s approach to making sure everyone who receives government aid works has always seemed vaguely punitive, while the left’s interest in providing jobs — and thus an income — to people who have neither rings of Rooseveltian solidarity with the victims of an unfair economy. Regardless, these pro-work programs inevitably fixate on work as a provider of independence or self-esteem. With just a little nudge in the direction of the labor market, one concludes, people who feel disempowered and diminished by their economic situation would find themselves newly dignified, self-sufficient, proud.
And maybe that is the case: Trump isn’t wrong, after all, in identifying work as a cardinal American virtue — and infractions against virtue are the stuff of vice. But in terms of our wider cultural context, it doesn’t appear to me that a lack of respect for work is the No. 1 threat to American dignity. If we undervalue anything to the detriment of dignity, it is the virtue of rest.
Many victories of the labor movement were premised on the precise notion that the majority of one’s life shouldn’t be made up of work: It was the socialist Robert Owen who championed the eight-hour workday, coining the slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” For Owen, it was important not only that workers had time to sleep after a hard day’s labor, but also that they had time to pursue their own interests — to enjoy leisure activities, cultivate their own projects, spend time with their families and so forth. After all, a life with nothing but work and sleep is akin to slavery, and not particularly dignified. As Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs recently told Politico: “Work does have some value and some dignity, but I don’t think working 14 hours and not being able to pay your bills, or working two jobs and not being able — there’s nothing inherently dignified about that.”
Among those who are fighting for a universal job guarantee is saying that rest isn’t important? No one. Not one person. What’s particularly odd here is that Bruenig’s own evidence suggests the connections between a strong labor movement and a push for rest. Tubbs is right-working 14 hours a day and not being able to pay your bills is horrible. That’s why we need a universal jobs guarantee! That’s what stops this sort of exploitation and poverty. Workers wouldn’t have to labor 2 jobs at $9 for 14 hours and be unable to pay their bills. They could labor 40 hours a week on a government job at a living wage. A universal job guarantee gives workers options. No one is making them leave a job. They could take a government job–or not. They would have choices. And those choices would grant them the power to make decisions over their own lives–including the decision to rest!
This leads to Bruenig’s conclusion:
There’s a balance to be struck where it comes to work and rest, but in the United States, values and laws are already slanted drastically in favor of work. I would advise those concerned about Americans’ dignity, freedom and independence to not focus on compelling work for benefits or otherwise trying to marshal people into jobs when what they really need are health care, housing assistance, unemployment benefits and so forth. Instead, we should focus more of our political energies on making sure that American workers have the dignity of rest, the freedom to enjoy their lives outside of labor and independence from the whims of their employers.
I really struggle to see how this is an argument that is anything but the necessity for a universal job guarantee. What she seems to ignore entirely is that the biggest advocates for workers having more time to rest are labor unions. Labor unions only exist when there is work. There has been exactly 0 institutions in American history to push for programs like more rest for workers outside of labor unions. Nothing else has even begun to organize working people to act collectively for their own needs and desires.
Now it’s time to share a story from the not so distant past, one that I tell in Empire of Timber. In 1958, Al Hartung, president of the International Woodworkers of America, testified before Congress in favor of a wilderness bill, one that would eventually become the 1964 Wilderness Act. Now, some of that land destined to be wilderness in the Northwest had lots of marketable timber on it. A lot of unions opposed it because it would take land out of production. Hartung had a very different take. He articulated an expansive vision of postwar prosperity. Envisioning a future where growing population combined with technological innovation and a federal commitment to full employment, he saw no alternative but a shorter workweek. Wilderness gave workers a place to enjoy their expanding free time. Hartung argued that a failure to act would cause the nation’s children to “hold us responsible for having cheated them of part of their birthright as Americans.”
Hartung was arguing for a 6-hour day and greater rest and relaxation for workers. That never happened, but it wasn’t because of workers’ desire to labor for employers for 14 hours a day. It never happened because workers never had the power to make it happen. Soon after, deindustrializaton, capital mobility, and anti-union attacks started significantly weakening worker power. That’s how we ended up with 14 hour days working two jobs at minimum wage being a common thing.
And that leads us to the answer to whatever question Bruenig is trying to ask. I feel UBI folks like this are spending a lot more time in arid intellectual debates about ideas of work and radicalism than engaging with the history of workplaces and the contemporary struggles for workplace power. What activists should be doing is fighting to give workers choices and power over their own life. A universal job guarantee does this, as does a universal child care guarantee, universal health care, etc. It doesn’t reinforce right-wing workfare arguments; it gives workers the option to have choices on the job market. Obviously, there are people who cannot work and that’s where UBI-based direct cash transfers make sense. But each of these policies greater options for workers. They could work less if they didn’t have to pay for child care or health care, for instance.
Again, I am not opposed to UBI because I place a high value on work. If UBI happens, then great. My position in favoring a job guarantee is based upon two decades of studying both American history and the American workforce. I simply see nothing in American history that suggests a robust welfare state not based around work succeeding. What’s the evidence? The near-universality of Social Security and Medicare are based around a lifetime of work paying into it, while means-tested programs simply lack broad-based political support and become easy targets for conservatives. Cultures of work exist and are taught to children from a small age. Horatio Alger wasn’t just a pedophile–although he was very much a pedophile. He also both replicated preexisting ideas of labor at the heart of the American republic and also reinforced them. I don’t see anything in the historical, sociological, or anthropological literatures on the American working class that suggests a likelihood of widespread support for a UBI-esque program. While I’m not particularly concerned about worrying about the costs of programs given Republican laughing at doing the same thing, UBI would be a major addition to debt whereas a job guarantee would recoop a lot of those costs through taxes.
But moreover, I need an explanation from Bruenig or anyone else how the politics of a left-wing movement based on rest and avoiding work operates. What are the institutions here that fight for this? Where are the examples from our past or present that suggest such a thing might develop? How is this sustained over the long-term? It’s time for UBI advocates to move out of the Jacobin and DSA reading clubs and into a deeper engagement with American cultural and political realities. I want to believe that a UBI-style program could work because I want the money for myself. But I need to hear these questions and answers articulated. Telling me that “we need to teach people to work less” is not even close to sufficient. I want to know how this is going to fly in American culture. Because what I do know about a universal job guarantee is that people want jobs, they want better jobs, they want choices on the job, they want power on the job, they want the dignity that a decent income provides. A job guarantee helps them achieve all these things–as well as the option for more rest. I can understand where this fits in American politics, how unions could advocate for and build upon it, how a strong political movement around it could develop around it. And I just don’t see any of this structure for UBI.