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Three Ways to Design a Democratic Job Guarantee

What would a truly democratic jobs program look like?

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Patty Murry look on during a news conference at the US Capitol on March 14, 2017, in Washington, DC.

Projected 2020 presidential candidates are getting behind a job guarantee (JG). Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) have announced their support, pitching their own pilot plans for providing a right to employment. Sen. Bernie Sanders is set to unveil a plan for more comprehensive implementation. Between now and the 2020 election, with rising congressional support, what a JG should and could look like will be the subject of debate. If we believe everyone has a right to employment with a living wage, the question is how such guaranteed employment should be structured and designed.

One criticism is that a job guarantee would be overly top-down and perilously unmanageable. However, for years JG advocates have called for a relatively decentralized structure, with locally-oriented rollouts and processes. This is not a lip service counter to JG critics. There are real options for a democratically decentralized JG program. In a recent policy paper and proposal, economist Pavlina Tcherneva devoted a subsection to “participatory democracy,” explicitly citing processes like participatory budgeting (PB). Tcherneva went as far as to assert that participatory governance “is a likely a prerequisite” for the “long-term success” of a JG program.

Fortunately, there are existing participatory institutional forms and processes for JG advocates and implementers to draw on — processes and forms that will not only provide a universal right to employment, but a right to employment under democratic means. That is to say, not only making employment available, but the type of employment wherein workers have real voice, power and creativity alongside and with the communities they serve.

Here are three ways that could roughly happen:

1. Participatory Budgeting

How it works: PB operates in more than 3,000 cities around the world. PB processes take place at varying scales. They occur statewide, citywide,in neighborhoods, schools, colleges, housing complexes, and among particular populations, such as youth and those most affected by poverty. In PB, residents or constituents of a particular institution decide how to allocate funds, rather than politicians or bureaucrats.

To provide more of a visual, PB in the United States typically operates according to a four-step process. First, members of a community identify problems and potential in what are called “idea-collection assemblies.” At these assemblies, community members also have the opportunity to step up their involvement and become volunteer “budget delegates.” Then, budget delegates move into category- and topic-specific committees, surveying through the body of collected ideas and meeting with relevant administrative agencies and offices to determine feasibility. Third, a final ballot is constructed wherein community members collectively decide for themselves where they would like to see money spent. In a sense, this is a moment of direct democratic decision-making. In the final vote, the people of a city, district or any institution determine the allocation of funds and resources. Finally, upon conclusion of the vote, project implementation is underway with various possibilities for oversight.

How it applies to JG: With regard to JG operations, there are concerns about how needs will be determined, and who will determine them. Some immediately jump to the image of an astronomically enlarged state apparatus and bureaucracy. One counter has been to look to nonprofits — that underfunded and understaffed nonprofits could be one of the primary beneficiaries of a JG. As a result, institutional forms and processes could be tailored around the milieu of nonprofits operating within a given city, region or state. This is very well possible and desirable. Many nonprofits are part of location-specific roundtables or topic-specific networks and associations. There is some base-level cross-organizational infrastructure from which nonprofits could collaborate on local and regional JG program implementation and operation.

PB offers a process for popularly rooted and popularly occurring mass identification of needs. In other words, rather than an exclusive segment of technical experts or a small body of community members identifying problems, entire communities are enabled to do so. Still, PB is most typically reserved for decision-making related to infrastructure. In the United States, PB has not yet gone beyond deciding what to do with a few million dollars in a given process. PB processes can, however, be bigger and applied to pots of funds outside of infrastructure spending. A recent PB process in Brooklyn experimented with a ballot on “programming.” Ballot items included funds for elementary school robotics programming, start-up support for a tenant union, and separately, for a worker cooperative owned by immigrant women. Other items included “creative engagement for Alzheimer’s patients and training for caregivers,” and “sharing theater arts with developmentally disabled New Yorkers.”

What does all of this mean for a JG interlaced with PB?

First, a JG extends the range of possible and feasible projects within a PB process. PB ballots display dollar amounts next to each ballot item. Within the context of an actually operating JG program, a PB ballot might also display the amount and types of jobs that would be created. In other words, dollar amounts and project descriptions would no longer be the sole two core components. Employment would also be centered in the presentation and representation of projects proposed and crafted through PB. Furthermore, PB processes would be enabled to take on questions of employment. They would not be nearly as limited by employment constraints, and as such, could be part of the employment-creation process.

Second, a JG could deepen the administrative capacity of existing and forthcoming PB processes. Many PB processes are administratively understaffed. Most processes, however, depend on volunteer labor. For complete end-to-end operation of a PB process, volunteer laborers take on an exhausting range of duties, and often even pay out-of-pocket to fill in gaps in operational expenses. Volunteer operational labor could be replaced or substantially supplemented by paid JG labor.

2. Sortition

How it works: There is growing advocacy and experimentation in “sortition” processes. These processes range from “deliberative polling” to “citizens’ assemblies,” “citizens’ juries” and “planning cells.” Common to all these sortition processes is an assembling of randomly selected individuals to design or review a policy. Advocates and theorists point to the use of sortition in Venice and ancient Athens. This has led some to refer to the wording of “random selection” as a slight mischaracterization. A sortition body operating as a “mini-public” is typically constituted according to a “fair cross-section” of demographic representation. Sortition bodies can operate within individual institutions like hospitals or schools. In sortition bodies, ordinary community members have taken on topics as complex as nuclear energy, GMOs and an array of environmental topics. In terms of scale, they can operate at municipal, statewide and national levels. Until recently, however, sortition bodies designed policy without a binding mechanism for legislation or agenda-setting.

Recently, some efforts have been made to move toward effective policy evaluation and implementation. In British Columbia, Canada, a citizens’ assembly deliberated on electoral reform and their recommendation was voted on in a provincial referendum. In Mongolia, deliberative polling is now a central component of the constitutional amendment process. In Ireland in 2015, a random selection of ordinary people came together to deliberate on marriage equality. Their recommendation was then put to a national referendum. Citizens’ assemblies are now being established to tackle a variety of national questions that will then be put to a national vote.

How it applies to JG: As shown above, PB could be grafted onto a job guarantee program. A more targeted deliberative process for job creation could come through sortition bodies. A fair cross-section of residents could be assembled anywhere — from the neighborhood to the regional level — to determine where and what types of JG employment make the most sense within a particular area. Local and regional experts would have their knowledge tapped into through a policy governance format that centers ordinary community members.

Sortition bodies could also determine the locations of new “Community Job Banks,” with such job banks being offices where people apply for, propose or receive support for JG jobs. Sortition bodies could help determine how Community Job Banks can function according to issues of access and equity. Such sortition bodies could even help determine the physical and operational design of Community Job Banks, so that such sites become spaces of participatory democracy. For example, as spaces conducive to a PB idea-collection assembly, or for other kinds of co-production and collaboration between JG employees and program managers.

Sortition can also be combined with participatory budgeting, particularly in deepening the democratic character of the latter. For instance, budget delegates within a PB process need not be self-selecting, or at least, not solely so. Instead, budget delegates could be selected according to a model of sortition. That is to say, city-level or neighborhood-level budget delegates could be selected by lot, rather than through pure voluntary self-selection. If selected by lot, budget delegates could receive a stipend, receive more extensive training, and function as more neutral arbiters when it comes to reviewing project ideas and constructing a final ballot.

One could also apply this to Citizens’ Initiative Reviews (CIRs), in order to deepen existing ones and widen their practice. CIRs are panels of a fair cross-section of randomly selected residents that assess referenda ballot measures. CIRs have been identified as one corrective to direct democratic processes gone awry. For those critically supportive of ballot measures, CIRs are a tool for maintaining and even bolstering large-scale direct democracy. Operating in the state of Oregon through a public commission that is privately funded, the CIR concludes with a “Citizens’ Statement … published as a prominent page in the voters’ pamphlet as … [an] easily accessible resource for voters to use at election time.” CIRs result in more informed voting, and thus deepen direct democratic processes. With a JG, CIRs could be extended for longer periods, making for more thoroughgoing processes with a living-wage stipend provided for randomly selected participants. A JG would aid in the proliferation of processes like CIR and PB at municipal and state levels, as both processes would have key operational features covered. Randomly selected residents would deepen their knowledge and skills as civic agents, and large-scale publics would benefit from deepened democracy.

3. Cooperatives and Workers’ Self-Management

How it works: At the basic level, worker cooperatives operate according to “one worker, one vote.” Rather than the terms of work being set by a board of directors appointed by capital or distant state bureaucrats, a worker cooperative’s board is elected by employees on a one-worker-one-vote basis. Many worker cooperatives possess workplace-level participatory mechanisms exceeding the one-worker-one-vote principle as applied to board elections. While there are a number of horizontally run worker cooperatives, such enterprises can operate at scales many times the size of a direct democratic workers’ collective. Started in 1956, the largest worker cooperative in the world is Mondragon, with 80,000 worker-owners extending across a variety of dissimilar industries. Mondragon also possesses a supermarket chain that has increasingly tended toward a multi-stakeholder cooperative governance model, with voting and participation rights accorded to both consumers and employees.

In the United States, there are approximately 300 worker cooperatives. The largest worker cooperative is Cooperative Homecare Associates, with more than 1,500 worker-owners. Cooperative Homecare Associates has existed for more than 30 years. From just these examples, one finds that worker cooperatives effectively operate at scale in areas ranging from manufacturing to care, as well as to schooling and other service-oriented work.

How it applies to JG: Considering the public nature of JG enterprises, total workers’ control may not be desirable in every case, or even possible in every case. In some cases, JG employment will be supplementary to institutions, such that full democratic operation of a job would demand democratization of that specific worksite or institution. For example, in the case of JG providing school aides and potentially nascent education paraprofessionals, the school itself would have to be democratized. In other words, we cannot imagine that every JG worksite would or could immediately translate into a worksite approximating to cooperative or self-management.

This does not imply the elimination of all elements of workers’ control. As shown above, there are other forms of cooperative governance and management. Part of JG job training could include components from what are found in worker cooperative development curricula. Job training could also include community mapping and outreach exercises. This as a means of fostering community and local knowledges. In cases where new worksites are created, more thoroughgoing democratic work arrangements can be experimented with.

One could imagine various institutions and organizations submitting applications for JG labor. For instance, a labor union might submit an application to start a child care worker cooperative that would be primarily intended to serve the union’s members, but also the wider community. One could also imagine public universities, research institutes or local history associations submitting applications for JG labor to conduct oral histories on particular topics. Oral histories, for example, were carried out through the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project. In any case, a JG that is oriented toward democratic employment could be a standard by which to democratize work in the broader economy.

Democratic From Top to Bottom

JG advocates do not see the program as a panacea to all problems. Some supporters of a JG see it as compatible with some kind of universal or partial basic income program. A JG program could also enhance access and inclusion in employment for communities and populations otherwise marginalized from job seeking. Each of the processes described above might even serve as a means to doing so. Different kinds of participatory and deliberative processes might be formulated to tackle issues of ableism, or questions of inclusion with regard to formerly incarcerated people.

More than simply tailoring each of these processes to different segments of the public, each of these forms and processes correspond to different scopes and scales of public power and influence. Randomly selected bodies are often called “mini-publics,” whereas participatory budgeting is a process of the “mass-” or “macro-public.” Enterprises and associations are a kind of “middle-” or “meso-public.” In this way, the forms and processes described above are ones compatible with each other. Furthermore, experiences in sortition and PB processes provide participants with skills and knowledge applicable and transferable to various forms of employments. Ideally, however, a democratic job guarantee would be part of a far-reaching reform effort that includes democratizing substantial segments of the private sector as well. JG jobs would then not only filter into the private sector as we traditionally know it, but to an enlarged cooperative enterprise and economic sector.

Participatory budgeting, sortition and self-management are therefore processes and forms that can, together, help make for a radical, democratically decentralized JG program. In doing so through a job guarantee, they can rapidly extend and deepen participatory democracy in general. It may not yet be clear how the above three forms and processes precisely fit together, but they are indispensable components to a JG if we want to democratize employment in the United States.

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