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Boris Johnson says he wants a Roosevelt-style coronavirus recovery. If he’s serious he’ll give unions a seat at the table

The prime minister has called for a 'Rooseveltian moment', like the US president's New Deal programme after the Great Depression | PA Images

4 min read

A post Covid ‘New Deal’ could provide 1.24 million jobs – but it also needs to tackle systemic racism, youth unemployment and low pay, says the TUC boss.

It’s always a surprise when politicians start citing their past political foes as new-found heroes. Yesterday morning, the PM pledged a “Rooseveltian moment”. And over the weekend, Michael Gove fleshed out the vision, speaking of the power of government to change lives, and claiming as the government’s first priority the plight of what he called the Forgotten Man – the victim of the crisis and inequality. 

Although best remembered for taking the US into the war against Nazism, the 32nd president of the United States was the architect of the New Deal, which rescued millions of ordinary Americans from the despair of the Great Depression. He used the power of government to directly employ millions. He regulated banks, the stock market and cracked down on corporate abuse. His National Recovery Administration formalised cooperation between unions, business and government, and regulated workplaces. 

As we face an economic crisis on the scale of the Great Depression again, I am keen the government learns from FDR, to support the Forgotten Man (and Woman) of the UK in 2020. 

Roosevelt knew that, in the 1930s as now, the price of mass unemployment was misery and destitution. The modern equivalent of his public works is investing in high-speed broadband, de-carbonising manufacturing tech, expanding rail and electric transport, building new homes and retrofitting existing ones. Together, the TUC has calculated that these schemes could provide 1.24 million jobs in the next two years. 2020s public works means investing in the social infrastructure of childcare and social care too.

Whatever the PM chooses must be accompanied by a 2012 Olympics-style plan for jobs – prioritising local unemployed people, building skills and setting people up for careers. And like FDR’s funding of the arts (the murals of New Deal public buildings are legendary), the PM must not neglect our creative industries either.  

 A Roosevelt approach is a jobs guarantee programme, ensuring every young person has a good job on at least the real Living Wage

Another Roosevelt innovation was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed a quarter of a million previously unemployed young people. In the UK now, workers aged 25 and under are three times more likely to work in one of the two sectors where jobs are at greatest risk – hospitality and the arts and entertainment. We know that unemployment wreaks havoc on young people’s life chances. A Roosevelt approach is a jobs guarantee programme, ensuring every young person has a good job on at least the real Living Wage. 

Michael Gove noted that he wants to "shift our economic model to see higher returns to labour and fewer opportunities for rent-seeking." FDR said, “if I went to work in a factory the first thing, I'd do is join a union.” And he was as good as his word, guaranteeing the right of private sector workers to organise in unions, and giving unions a seat at the table. 

And it worked: inequality dropped precipitously as union membership rose following his reforms. Then as now, the best inequality-fighting tool is strong unions, negotiating fair wages on secure contracts and raising living standards for every worker. If the PM is inspired by FDR’s legacy, unions would welcome the chance to serve on a national recovery board – fighting unemployment, finding ways to create good jobs covered by collective bargaining and planning jointly for a fairer, more equal country.  

FDR brought in the first ever meaningful protections against discrimination in the defence industry and drove the massive increase in Black workers securing good manufacturing jobs. But he didn’t outlaw lynching and made no progress on civil rights. Government today must take on systemic racism and the spread of insecure work that has placed the UK’s Black workers into riskier, more exposed and lower-paid roles during the pandemic. We should start by banning zero hours contracts and raising the national minimum wage to a real Living Wage.

I hope that the Johnson and Gove conversion to Rooseveltian economics is real. It would mean, in short, working with unions and business to deliver recovery, using the power of government to fight unemployment and stop corporate abuses, and focussing huge spending increases on those living on low incomes or in the shadow of discrimination. Roosevelt’s New Deal was a departure from what he called the “hear-nothing, see-nothing, do nothing” government that he was elected to overturn in 1932, and with which our current government bears an uncomfortable similarity after 10 years in office.


Frances O'Grady is general secretary of the Trades Union Congress

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