Helen Lachs Ginsburg, Jobs-for-All Scholar-Activist

Scholar, activist, advocate for living wages and a job guarantee, and D&S supporter Helen Ginsburg passed away on October 8th. Her obituary appeared in the New York Times on November 6th (online version here). Below is an obituary from Gertrude Schaffner (“Trudy”) Goldberg of the National Jobs for All Network, a close friend of Helen’s and a frequent D&S author.  –Eds. 

Photo of Helen Lachs Ginsburg
Helen Lachs Ginsburg in an undated photo. A Brooklyn College professor, she was a founding member of the National Committee for Full Employment, which was led by Coretta Scott King.Credit…via Ginsburg family.

Helen Lachs Ginsburg, Scholar-Activist and Leader in Advocacy of Living-Wage Jobs for All

Helen Lachs Ginsburg, life-long advocate for full employment or a Job Guarantee, died on October 8th at the age of 91. She retired some years ago as Professor Emerita of Economics from Brooklyn College.  Professor Ginsburg gained distinction in a field that was dominated by men, particularly some seventy years ago when she launched her career as an economist.

As a founding member of the National Committee for Full Employment, led by Coretta Scott King, Ginsburg wrote and lectured around the country in the 1970s in support of  the full employment legislation proposed by Representative Augustus Hawkins (D-CA) and co-sponsored  by Senator Humbert Humphrey. The original legislation would have given everyone a decent job who wants one–a key policy to reduce inequality and poverty.  Thus Ginsburg was a link between those like her who fought for full employment fifty years ago and the young activists now pressing for a job guarantee, a $15 minimum wage, and a Green New Deal that would include a right to living-wage work.

The Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978, a much watered-down version of the legislation originally proposed by Representative Hawkins, guaranteed neither full employment nor balanced growth. In the wake of that disappointment, Professor Ginsburg began her study of Sweden’s successful, sustained full employment policy. Visiting that country with a grant from the Swedish Bicentennial Fund, Ginsburg conducted numerous interviews with trade union leaders, government officials, and academics, including such luminaries as Gunnar and Alva Myrdal–not to mention many unemployed persons whom she met at Labor Market Training Centers, employment offices, and rehabilitation centers. The result of that research—her 1983 book, Full Employment and Public Policy: The US and Sweden– was an important influence on the thinking of those who, despite the disappointing results of Humphrey-Hawkins, continued to advocate full employment—or as Helen Ginsburg referred to that goal in the title of a 1978 article in The Nation: “Jobs  for All.”

Upon learning of Professor Ginsburg’s death, the distinguished economist L. Randall Ray, wrote that her 1983 book that introduced readers to the Swedish model of full employment helped him and his colleagues at both the University of Missouri’s Center for Full Employment and Price Stability and the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College to get started with their work on full employment. Similarly, Professor of Law and Economics at Rutgers Law, Philip Harvey was encouraged by Ginsburg’s book because its detailed treatment of the Swedish experiment convinced him that “incremental progress could achieve revolutionary social change over time.”  Historian Frank Stricker, whose latest book is American Unemployment, Past, Present, and Future, wrote: “I used her books in my work.  Such a model of devotion to the cause and to the truth. ” Eduardo Rosario, Executive Board member of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, wrote, “This is a tremendous loss for all of us and for working people everywhere.”

In the 1980s, when the disappointing results of the Humphrey-Hawkins struggle led many progressives to give up on full employment, Helen Ginsburg was a mainstay among the scholars and activists who kept alive the dream of living-wage work for all–in a group called New Initiatives for Full Employment or NIFE. Soon after, members of NIFE, led by Columbia professor Sumner Rosen, initiated the Columbia University Seminar on Full Employment—as one means of refining the group’s ability to conceptualize full employment and to contribute to its political resurgence. This Seminar which Helen Ginsburg co-led for many years, provided an opportunity for full employment advocates to meet with scholars and activists in this country and abroad.

The proceedings of the Seminar on Full Employment contributed to the conceptualization of full employment in a 1994 book or manifesto that Ginsburg co-authored with Sheila Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg:  Jobs for All: A Plan for the Revitalization of America. Their plan for revitalizing this nation was “based on the philosophy that work and production, exchange and distribution should be redesigned in ways that are conducive to the full development of the innate potential of all people and to the sustainability of the ecosystem.” Their book launched the successor to NIFE, the National Jobs for All Coalition (now National Jobs for All Network). Helen Ginsburg was a co-founder of the National Jobs for All Coalition and,  for the rest of her life, a member and mentor to its Board of Directors.  According to Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, Chair of the National Jobs for All Network, “Helen Ginsburg was a model of a scholar-activist whose research and writing, always informed by her engagement in the struggle for economic justice, was an inspiration and impetus to all who carry on the struggle for “jobs for all.” The National Jobs for All Network is deeply indebted to our co-founder and diminished by her death.”

Beginning with her work on Swedish full employment policy, Helen Lachs Ginsburg was a trail-blazer in cross-national or comparative study. She continued to study, visit, and write about Sweden in the years following her initial research there. In 1990, she was a Guest Scholar at the Wissenschaftscentrum in Berlin in 1990, an opportunity that broadened her cross-national perspectives. A subsequent presentation to the Columbia Seminar reflected that research: “Jobs for All: Values, Concepts, and Policies in the US, Germany, and Sweden.” Professor Ginsburg encouraged her colleagues to follow her example of engaging in cross-national study, and she informally mentored and co-authored work with them.

In paying tribute to Helen Professor Ginsburg, Gűnther  Schmidt, Director Emeritus of the Wissenschaftscentrum  in Berlin where Ginsburg was a Guest Scholar, admired “her broad approach of combining philosophy ofwork with sound economics.” This broad approach is exemplified in an article in the Department of Labor’s Monthly Labor Review, “Flexible and partial retirement for Norwegian and Swedish Workers,” for which Ginsburg was awarded the prestigious Lawrence R. Klein Award.

In his remembrance, Professor Schmid called attention to Ginsburg’s 2011 article, “Historical Amnesia: The Humphrey‑Hawkins Act, Full Employment and Employment as a Right,” published in “Review of Black Political Economy.” The article reminded him of “the legacy of the Roosevelt’s New Deal and the original Humphrey-Hawkins proposal, freshly and powerfully reformulated in her conclusion”: “Full employment […] shifts power from capital to workers […]. The right to a job […] is a visionary concept and can be empowering. […]. Living wage jobs as a right may seem unrealistic but so once did the right of all children to go to school, the right of women to vote and the abolition of slavery.”

Helen Lachs Ginsburg  was born  and lived her entire life in New York City. She is a graduate of Queens College and earned her doctorate in Economics from The New School. She leaves her husband of more than 60 years, Nathan Ginsburg of Flushing, New York, her brother and sister-in-law Sherman and Lorraine Lachs of Scottsdale Arizona, and a number of nieces and nephews.

New Issue!

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New Issue!  Our Jan/Feb 2015 issue is (finally) out–or at least it is ready to be sent to the printers tomorrow. (E-subscribers will get their pdf by email tomorrow also.)  We posted John Miller’s “Up Against the Wall Street Journal” column today: Another Gift for Corporations–Lower Tax Rates, timely because of Obama’s discussion of tax reform in the State of the Union (more on the SOTU when I get a chance to post some links that have been accumulating on my desk).  There is lots else to enjoy in this issue.  Here is our p. 2 editors’ note:

Why Must It Be So? 

Almost by definition, those who are battling the wealthy and powerful are normally going to be on the defensive. Being the wealthy and powerful is like holding the high ground in a battle. It makes it easier to repel any challenges. And it means that you must have won battles in the past, or you wouldn’t still have the high ground.

Seeking to understand and explain why society is how it is—what we try to do at Dollars & Sense—means confronting, over and over, why the other side is winning, how they occupy the high ground. But it’s a task that can give rise not only to despair, but also to hope: Ask “why is the world how it is?” and you’re liable to end up asking “well, why isn’t it different?”
In this issue, Deborah M. Figart and Thomas Barr look at the growing world of check-cashing outlets (CCOs). With a mostly low-income clientele not well-served by regular banks, check-cashing is an industry rife with the possibility of predatory practices and extortionate fees. So why isn’t that always the case? Figart explains that the story varies a great deal from one state to another, and that the difference is effective (and effectively enforced) regulation.

Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg takes a look back at the mass upsurge of the Great Depression era—the labor struggles that created large industrial unions and the lesser-known movements of the unemployed—and why we haven’t seen anything on a comparable scale during our Great Recession. She argues that the underlying conditions of the present era, while not as severe as the 1930s, were enough to create a much larger upsurge than actually happened. The missing ingredients have been even modestly supportive government policies and cohesive, ideologically committed groups of organizers.

Robin Broad shows us an example to emulate—the 1964 “Tokyo No,” in which 19 lower-income countries opposed a World Bank proposal to create a tribunal where investors could sue governments, sidestepping national courts. While the tribunal system still went through, this is no mere nostalgia for past defiance. The issue of “investor-stage dispute settlement” is ever more pressing, as such institutions have grown in power, and is provoking renewed defiance today.

Economist Jayati Ghosh points to the obstacles standing in the way of economic development and labor solidarity, and yet offers an optimistic and ambitious vision of the world that could be: where “your life chances are not fundamentally different because of accidents of birth. So if you are born as a girl of a minority ethnic group in a rural area of a poor region, you would still have access to minimum conditions of life and opportunities for developing your capabilities that are not too different from a boy born in a well-off household of a dominant social group in an affluent society.”

So, how do we get there from here? We do not have mass movements in the United States today at the scale of the 1930s. To give but one example, in 1934 and again in 1937, the percentage of all employed workers involved in a work stoppage was over 7%, a figure exceeded for only three years in the next half century. There are, however, nascent movements impacting U.S. political life in important ways. The Occupy Movement sounded a battle cry over the growing abyss of income and wealth inequality—giving us a new lexicon of the “1%” and the “99%.” Movements like Our Walmart and the Fight for 15 are showing that workers in low-wage industries like fast food and retail will not take low pay and abusive working conditions lying down. The Black Lives Matter movement is fighting back against the racist and repressive face of the state. (We should note, too, hopeful developments on the world scene: Leftist parties like SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos (We Can) in Spain, for example, are on the rise, offering alternatives not only to business neoliberalism and right-wing populism, but also to center-left parties that have done the dirty work of austerity.)
The movements of today are, perhaps, less akin to those of the Depression era than to those that persisted between the Red Scare and the Great Crash—that, even under assault by employers and the state, laid the groundwork for mass risings of the next decade. The challenge, now, is to build these movements, as Goldberg describes, into mass movements of millions, and to imbue them, as Ghosh proposes, with the vision of a new society that only they can make.

Links on SOTU, Black Lives Matter, the economics profession, the Van Hollen plan, and other stuff soon!

–Chris Sturr