The Right to Work

I’ve finally finished the site design and colour scheme. It took me much longer than expected as it proved more difficult than expected. Alas, I have a final design. Today’s topic is a continuation from my post Full Employment Demise and is a history of ‘The Right to Work’

The right to work movement has its origins in the 14th century. Now a days, within a USA context, it is a term used for anti union laws under the guise of a right to not be a member of a union. They are laws designed to limit organising and collective power.

Work on a a lords land circa 14th century was usually for a subsistence living and the surplus value of your labour (literally your harvest) was the property of the lord. The peasants that occupied the land were not its owners. Agrarian property was controlled by a class of feudal lords. Their were limits on travel for working people, ‘Villeins regardant’ were usually granted plots of lands to farm for a subsistence and these plots along with those on them could be bought and sold. ‘Bordarri’ who were usually tradesmen/artisans were usually granted a cottage to live in exchange for their labour. Conditions of servitude were inherited and you were bound in perpetuity. Under capitalism the exchange value disguises the use value of your labour and the capturing of surplus value by the capitalist class is more opaque.

There was growing demand for wage labour (most likely because of the leaving of taxes demanded a necessity for the sovereigns currency) Waged-labour was more cost effective than feudalist servitude as it absolved the owners of needing to house and feed their workforce. There was less direct need for surveillance and motivation came from the workers needing to obtain income.

As waged-labour became more common there were a series of laws through Britain and the rest of Europe to preserve distress amongst the unemployed. The notion that it ‘built character’, ‘unemployment acted as a motivator and increased the productivity of the working class’, and it limited what the capitalist class saw as ‘excessive wages’ as workers competed for scarce work.

There were laws that under the guise of ‘providing for’ or to ‘assist’ the unemployed acted as a mechanism for forcing the unemployed to take any job at any condition. Elizabethan poor laws, such as the system of Speemhamsland, which was a sliding scale payment tied to the price of grain, designed to mitigate against rural poverty but ended up as a wage subsidy and resulted in increases in the price of grain, leaving the poor no better off.

There were also workhouses during the 19th and 20th century. The unemployed would be required to work in dangerous conditions, usually in a factory, for their below subsistence welfare payment. Conditions were often so pernicious, it resulted in death. It is similar to today’s modern day mutual obligation requirements under our welfare system. Welfare recipients are required to undergo Work for the Dole or Community Development Program (CDEP) for their below subsistence payment. It is mandatory and there have been cases of workers dying as a result of the conditions. The CDEP is often work for a private for profit corporation.

By 1848 during the Second Republic of France and the idea of a ‘right to work’ had gained traction having been popularised over the proceeding decade by Louis Blanc. The abolition of unemployment was a goal of the Parisian workers who had backed the Second Republic. ‘National Workshops’ were established where unemployed Parisian workers could show up and be paid. The scheme was contentious and had divided the cabinet, that resulted in a chaotic scheme. Many within cabinet wanted political reform not necessarily social reform such as the elimination of unemployment and wealth redistribution. The municipal engineers organising the work resented the use of unskilled labour. Often there was no planned work for the idle workers they would be paid one and a half francs a day to do nothing or two francs when work was given. The program started at approximately 14,000 workers and within half a year and expanded to 117,00 workers.

False promises were made to expand the program throughout The Republic however, the ‘right to work’ was withdrawn which led to what is known as ‘The June Day Uprisings’, warfare amongst the national guard and the workers which left thousands of protestors dead.

The ‘right to work’ movement reached the political discourse in Britain in 1889 and became a goal of the Independent Labour Party. Ken Hardie an ILP member in parliament breathed life into the unemployment debate. His maiden speech to parliament called for a policy on employing the unemployed.

“…we ought to have some permanent machinery to deal with the unemployed, the conditions of which should be twofold. In the first place it should be elastic. Labour should be organised in what he might call skeletal battalions, which might be filled in times of distress to their full strength, and which might go down again to skeletons when employment was plentiful. In the second place, the employment should be of a temporary character, and not such as to induce the recipients of it to remain in it in preference to seeking employment elsewhere”

The right to work and having the government act as an ‘employer of last resort’ gained traction across the political spectrum over this period. The choice for policy makers was, admit they had the capacity to employ the unemployed during downturns and they could set up works to to do or they could leave the unemployed to face destitution and misery, risk electoral defeat or a social revolution. The conservatives came with a counter offer found in the works of a conservative member of the House of Lords, William Beveridge in Unemployment: A Problem of Industry.

Beveridge argued in 1909 though unemployment was a result of the capitalist system it was only necessary to eliminate frictional unemployment and provide relief for the unemployed through unemployment insurance. The conservative alternative to Labour’s ‘Right to Work’ was a system of labour exchanges between the public and private sectors and and a contributory unemployment insurance scheme. By 1911, this was the system in place in Britain.

In 1919 E.G Theodore, Queensland Premier with the Australian Labour Party attempted to pass the Unemployed Workers Bill. The goal was to place the full resources of the State and Local Government in the hands of a council dedicated to the elimination of unemployment. The State Government would undertake major works to increase the number of jobs, there were powers that would order private employers that could assist to augment their projects, while local authorities would delay or expedite programs to deal with the seasonal variations in the number of jobs available. The councils role would be to undertake research and commission vocational training. Welfare payments were to be transitional while employment was being organised.

Naturally there were objections from the capitalist class towards this goal. Headlines described this system as a ‘loafers paradise’ by The Courier Mail

“The so-called “Unemployed Workers” Bill and its extraordinary provisions were widely discussed in the city yesterday. Needless to say, the measure was very strongly condemned as a premium upon idleness…”

Mainstream media warned of communist atrocities and the perils of socialism. The bill never passed but we saw a shift in the language used by opponents of full employment. Whereas in Hardie’s 1908 bill we saw opposition to full employment, laying open the capitalist class opposition to a system of full employment by 1919 arguments were around how methods of achieving full employment were flawed.

Much of the ‘economic’ theories being used (Quantity Theory of Money;late 19th early 20th century, Loanable funds theory;circa. 1930s) were funded by industrialist and used as justification on why full employment was ‘unachievable’.


Throughout history there have been different ‘monetary systems’ in place. Today we operate under a ‘fiat’ system. (Literally Latin for by decree). A fiat monetary system is one where a sovereign power issues its own currency and floats it on an exchange rate for trade.

The monetary system in use during post WWII was a gold standard. Governments would specify a particular amount of gold specie in return for the currency that they issue. Thus currency was limited by the supply of gold.

During war periods the gold standard was often suspended. This allowed a government to spend without concern toward the gold supply. During the Napoleonic wars Britain entered a period know as ‘The Restriction’ which suspended the gold standard and they invested in building their navy and colonising half the world. Similarly the gold standard was suspended over WWI and WWII.

During times of war, it is ‘normal’ to have all real resources, including labour in use. There is often a shortage of raw materials and labour power. Hitler used a fiat system to build Germany’s military. Japan avoided a Great Depression because the Japanese Prime Minister, Takahashi Korekiyo, took Japan off the Gold standard in 1931, and introduced a major fiscal stimulus with central bank credit. (Jargon for issuing money without issuing a bond)

The Great Depression was largely a result of insufficient spending, being tied to a gold standard and opposition to full employment by the capitalist class. Full employment policies have enormous political consequences as the threat of unemployment is taken away. It ensures workers have higher bargaining power, politically we have more power to ensure greater provisions of public service, which erodes capitals claims on national income.


The period of WWII in Australia saw full employment in Australia. As I mentioned in this post. Australia experienced a period of a full employment policy were unemployment seldom rose above two per cent. The work of J.M Keynes and his General Theory influenced most western policy towards achieving this goal. Full employment was defined as more jobs advertised than demanded (Beveridge curve) and Keynes ‘pump priming’ was used to ensure aggregate demand (total spending) was sufficient with this goal. Keynes very clearly articulated unemployment was a result of insufficient aggregate demand. (Spending in total)

Pump priming is a mechanism where you stimulate the economy enough to increase the marginal propensity to consume and the additional spending reaches enough to generate full employment.

Conclusion

The right to work was once a goal of workers movements in France, Britain with the Independent Labour Party, and an early goal of the Australian Labour Party. It sat alongside universal suffrage and the eight hour day.

Systems of unemployment insurance were compromises over policy goals of guaranteed employment. Today the workhouses of the 18th century are back in a modern form (WftD, CDEP), the pernicious nature of making unemployment so unattractive so the unemployed take any available job, no matter how atrocious the conditions.

Full employment policies were introduced post WWII though didn’t use a system of guaranteed jobs and provided unemployment insurance while workers waited for work to be created. However, there was a clearly defined goal of ensuring more jobs than work demanded. Today definitions of full employment are pathetically defined.

The next post will look at how a fiat currency can always be used to employ all available labour using a Job Guarantee as a buffer stock mechanism and changing the definition of productive work!

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