Organize the Unemployed — an Urgent Task for Labor!

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:

  1. For a public works jobs program to create millions of jobs at a living wage.
  2. For Immediately doubling the minimum wage.
  3. For ending foreclosures now and creating a program to help families stay in their homes.
  4. For preserving and protecting Social Security, Unemployment Compensation, Medicare, Medicaid, and other vitally needed social programs.
  5. For fully funding food stamps and other basic nutrition programs.
  6. For a single-payer national health care system.
  7. 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.


About elnwebmaster

This is the discussion blog of the Labor Fightback Network, an auxiliary to the website. It is designed to facilitate discussion among labor activists concerning the critical issues facing working people in the current economic crisis. Readers’ comments are welcome, but flaming is not. Any comments which are racist, sexist/homophobic, or disrespectful on a personal level will not get past moderation.
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6 Responses to Organize the Unemployed — an Urgent Task for Labor!

  1. The Emergency Labor Network writes in its July 23, 2012, “Organize the Unorganized – An Urgent Task for Labor” statement:

    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 . . . . 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.

    I would argue that yes, workers struggled during the Great Depression and made gains, but we should be aware that the ruling class shaped its response to such struggle in a white-supremacist way. That white-supremacist shaping was against the interest of working people. It is a white-supremacist shaping that we should be prepared to counter today.
    Specifically, I write in my article “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” at (top left) that —

    In his book, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold
    History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, [Ira] Katznelson explains how the national policies enacted from the 1930s through the 1950s – initiatives such as Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, emergency relief, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the G.I. Bill – “constituted a massive transfer of quite specific privileges to white Americans” and “widened the gap between white and black Americans.” Katznelson describes how the South’s representatives in both Houses of Congress “built ramparts within the policy initiatives of the New Deal and the Fair Deal to safeguard their region’s social organization” and he cites three particular mechanisms that they used. First, “they sought to leave out as many African Americans as they could . . . not by inscribing race into law but by writing provisions that . . . were racially laden.”
    The “most important instances concerned categories of work in which blacks were heavily overrepresented, notably farmworkers and maids.” These groups, which constituted over 60% percent of the Black labor force in the 1930s and nearly 75% of those employed in the South, “were excluded from the legislation that created modern unions, from laws that set minimum wages and regulated the hours of work, and from Social Security until the 1950s.” Second, “they successfully insisted that the administration of these and other laws, including assistance to the poor and support for veterans, be placed in the hands of local officials who were deeply hostile to black aspirations.” Third, “they prevented Congress from attaching any sort of antidiscrimination provisions to a wide array of social welfare programs such as community health services, school lunches, and hospital construction grants, indeed all the programs that distributed monies to their region.” In this way “a wide array of public policies” gave preference to whites and “most black Americans were left behind or left out.” One of the most glaring examples cited by Katznelson concerns the impediments to African Americans getting GI Bill home loans that had features such as low interest and zero down payments. The many impediments to African Americans were not limited to the South, and in New York and the northern New Jersey suburbs “fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill supported home purchases by non-whites.”

    I further point out —

    The Great Depression and World War II witnessed the rise of industrial unionism in which African Americans were included to an unprecedented degree. However, writes [Theodore W.] Allen, the CIO abandoned attempts to organize the South, and “went into alliance with the Democratic machines and the Dixiecrats that formed Roosevelt’s ‘troika.’” The “white-skin privilege employment policy that had already existed was given the seal of approval by the incorporation of the seniority principle in almost all labor agreements.” The Southern Jim Crow system continued to oppress Blacks and the armed forces continued to be Jim Crow operations. Very importantly the “relative unemployment rate of Blacks to whites in 1929 had been about 1 to 1,” but by 1947 it was established at “a rate of Black unemployment of double that of white unemployment.” This was followed by the Taft-Hartley Act, which was passed in June 1947 and paved the way for a series of anti-union laws that contributed to the decline of the trade union movement.

    It is my hope that those in the Emergency Labor Network, as well as those influenced by it, will take these points into consideration as we work to move the struggle forward.

    Jeffrey B. Perry

  2. Danile says:

    great article. please keep helping us with your good ideas and your advices.

  3. Please google “A Patriot’s Declaration of War” It is our best solution to the unemployment problem.

  4. Sean Ahern says:

    Thank you for providing this forum to comment on your 7- point program, in particular point #1; “For a public works jobs program to create millions of jobs at living wages.”
    In June of 2012 the unemployment rate for Black residents of NYC was 14.4%, for Hispanic residents it was 11% and for “white” residents it was 7.4% ( I urge the Emergency Labor Network to include in your program a demand to end such racial disparity in employment.

    Please consider the following proposition; that in order to win a nationwide jobs program in the current context, grassroots working class activists should join the demand for a nationwide jobs program with a demand for justice and fairness in the apportionment of these jobs. This should include, most specifically, an affirmative action hiring program that puts as a priority, the need to eradicate the employment differential between “white” and Black.

    I am a NYC public school teacher and a member of the United Federation of Teachers. Some 85% of the student body in NYC is Latino, Black and Asian. My students bear a disproportionate share of the effects of this 2 to 1 unemployment ratio between Blacks and “whites.” The employment gap contributes to the so called “achievement gap” in our public school system. Housing is unaffordable and doubly so when you are unemployed, underemployed or working two jobs at low wages. Families are crowded into inadequate, temporary quarters and when the adults are stressed, children suffer and are distracted. Some students act out, others fall behind, and many are disproportionately sorted out and marked as “failures” or low achievers by high stakes tests.

    High stakes testing serves as a “race neutral” mask, an effective closed loop that disproportionately blocks Black and Latino students from entering gifted and talented programs, specialized science high schools, and four year public colleges which may broaden employment and career opportunities. “Early intervention” for the youth most in need begins with equity, good jobs and working conditions for their adult caregivers.

    In the first 3 months of 2012 the NYC Police Department conducted 203,500 stop and frisks and 87% of those who were stopped and frisked were Black and Latino ( Go into any predominantly Black and Latino High school senior class in NYC and ask for a show of hands of students who have been stopped and frisked within the past year. Invariably hands go up and stories pour forth. Through racial profiling, a disproportionate number of young Black and Latino men in particular have been branded with criminal records, which further limit their employment options when they are released. A nationwide jobs program should ban discrimination nationwide based on criminal records. More police, court officers and prison guards is not the sort of jobs program we need.

    NYC has the highest average class sizes in the state and they are projected to increase again this fall. NYC schools need a jobs program to reduce class size but we need one that reverses the hiring patterns set by the Bloomberg administration which has brought about a 42% decline in newly hired Black and Latino teachers since 2002.
    A jobs program in NYC public schools needs more teachers of color not fewer. Students need positive role models. Teacher unions need solidarity. In conclusion, a nationwide jobs program cannot be “color blind” or it will reproduce the prevailing white supremacist 2 to 1 ratio in unemployment.

    Sean Ahern
    July 30, 2012

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