In June, 2012, speaking at a fundraiser in Iowa, Vice President Joe Biden said that “when the guy in Dunmore‘s out of work, it’s an economic slowdown. When your brother-in-law’s out of work, it’s a recession. When you’re out of work, it’s a depression.It’s a depression for millions and millions of people.”
In a political system that’s built on smoke, mirrors and spin, this is a refreshing metaphor. Four years into the Great Recession, more than 23 million workers remain locked out of the U.S. economy. The unemployed are a talking point for politicians, but the real plight of the jobless is ignored.
- The economy added only 69,000 jobs in May and 80,000 in June. Job creation has been sluggish, to say the least, in past months, creating fears of another downturn.
- There have been 40 straight months with the official government unemployment rate over 8 percent.
- 12.7 million workers are counted as unemployed.
- 8.1 million work part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time jobs.
- 2.4 million workers are described as “marginally attached to the labor force.” This refers to “discouraged” workers, and others who are not counted because they are not actively looking for work.
- The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks and over) rose from 5.1 to 5.4 million in May. These individuals accounted for 42.8 percent of the unemployed.
- There were 63,000 foreclosures in May of 2012.
- Foreclosures averaged 2,440 each day since May of 2011.
- There are approximately 3.5 million homeless, up from 2.5 million in 2007.
What will it take to address this jobs and housing emergency? Putting millions of workers back to work will require immediate action to create a public works jobs program comparable to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s.
There is no shortage of socially necessary jobs. Infrastructure is crumbling, energy systems need conversion to renewable sources, our education system needs reinforcement, and millions of people are without health care.
The fight for living-wage jobs, and the preservation of the social safety net, will only be won through large-scale organizing of the unemployed and underemployed. This organizing should have as its goal mass action to win immediate and long term relief.
A number of unions and workers centers have been developing a variety of programs to organize the unemployed, or at least to fight for relief on their behalf. Examples include the Machinists Union which launched a website UR Union of the Unemployed (U Cubed), designed, among other things, to establish communication among unemployed workers; Working America, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, is promoting networking among the unemployed through its website Unemployment Lifeline; the Unemployed Action Center in Chicago has been holding monthly rallies coinciding with the Labor Department’s job report to underscore the plight of the unemployed; and the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council now has a category of individual membership, which will help organize the unemployed. In addition, Jobs with Justice in a number of cities has been experimenting with different programs to organize the unemployed. While all of these efforts are certainly commendable, it is clear that we are still at the beginning of the process of uniting the unemployed into a powerful movement able to win significant victories in the struggle to put America back to work.
What is urgently needed is for the organized labor movement to throw all of its weight into organizing the unemployed in organizations controlled by the unemployed themselves, independent of political parties. This requires real grassroots organizing in the neighborhoods and towns where workers live.
During the Great Depression, programs like Social Security, unemployment compensation, the WPA and other forms of relief for the unemployed were won through mass struggles organized by Unemployed Councils and other organizations of the jobless. None of these social gains were handed to workers by benevolent bosses or politicians.
[Note: While the WPA was a real inspiration and in some respects a model for the future in providing jobs, the actual number it did provide was far less than what had been promised. In fact, it never employed more than 25% of the unemployed. Moreover, its budget was cut, leading to work stoppages and demonstrations at WPA sites protesting layoffs and demanding decent wages.]
Lessons from History
The National Unemployed Councils were founded on July 4, 1930 and organized local Councils in cities and towns across the U.S. The Unemployed Councils organized mass actions demanding jobs, unemployment insurance, food, and housing. The Councils also resisted foreclosures through direct action.
For example, in March of 1933 hundreds of Rankin, Pennsylvania Unemployed Council members jammed the home of an unemployed man and his invalid daughter to stop a planned sheriff’s sale of his furniture. The crowd halted any bidding on the goods by the speculators. When a policeman tried to clear the way for the bidders, the crowd took his gun and blackjack, bought all the furniture for a total of 24¢, and returned it to its owner.
In a dramatic action in Trenton, New Jersey, in April, 1936 and lasting eight days, the unemployed occupied the State House and held a mock session of the Legislature, passing laws and putting a smug political class on the spot.
The chief function this “Army of Unoccupation” — which the unemployed called themselves — fulfilled at Trenton was an educational one. It brought before the general public of the state and nation the true conditions of the unemployed. It made clear to them that the unemployed workers were not as well off and not as well taken care of as they had been led to believe.
Organizations of the unemployed also played a key role in the union organizing drives of the 1930s, pledging not to scab on strikes and, in some locales, actively picketing in solidarity with strikers.
Which Way Forward?
The unions need to make low-wage and unemployed workers a part of the organized working class. Union halls should be open to mass meetings of the unemployed and unions’ resources should be made available to help unemployed organizations get off the ground, with programs demanding good paying jobs with benefits. This is a practical question for labor. The unemployed and low wage, part-time workers are victims of the current economic crisis, but are also fed a diet of anti-union propaganda. By organizing these workers, labor would be reinforcing a vulnerable economic and political flank. As this crisis worsens, the right-wing can exploit the politics of resentment to mobilize the unemployed as a battering ram to break the organizations of the working class. This is a real danger if the unemployed are left unorganized and if the struggles they wage do not receive labor’s all-out support.
We should also be clear that the austerity drive is a bipartisan affair. The Republicans would privatize, severely undermine, or obliterate every social program in sight. President Obama and the Democrats have been willing accomplices in both budget slashing and the erosion of labor rights.. Democratic governors in California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon and other states have taken steps to cut public employees’ pensions and benefits. Democrats and Republicans have agreed on cutting funds for food stamps, the only difference being by how much. And when school authorities in Rhode Island fired all of the teachers and staff at Central Falls High School because they rejected a “turnabout” plan that would have involved major concessions, President Obama applauded the authorities’ decision, saying the school board was “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.”
In spite of this bipartisan assault, the unions continue to provide the Democrats with money and resources. It’s time for organized labor to break with the twin parties of Wall Street and build a party of our own — a labor party based on the unions. A labor party would be an essential instrument for the defense of our interests as working people and provide a political alternative to austerity and big business dominated politics.
In the past couple of years, we have seen the beginnings of a fightback sparked by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting assault on the states’ public employee unions. Occupy Wall Street has spread to cities and towns across the country as people resist cutbacks and demand accountability for financial elites. A crucial alliance between Occupy and labor won a partial victory at Longview, Washington and in the process shut down ports on the West Coast. Organized labor should build on this alliance by mobilizing as many people as possible around some basic demands, such as:
- For a public works jobs program to create millions of jobs at a living wage.
- For Immediately doubling the minimum wage.
- For ending foreclosures now and creating a program to help families stay in their homes.
- For preserving and protecting Social Security, Unemployment Compensation, Medicare, Medicaid, and other vitally needed social programs.
- For fully funding food stamps and other basic nutrition programs.
- For a single-payer national health care system.
- For taxing the richest 1%!. They created this crisis, make them pay for it!
Organizing to stop foreclosures, preserve and extend unemployment insurance, and placing the demand for full-time living-wage jobs on the top of the nation’s agenda will shift political discourse in favor of the embattled house of labor. Through both mass struggle and independent labor political action, working people will learn their potential power in society and become the activists energizing the union movement of the future.