On December 28, 2014, 1.3 million long-term unemployed workers saw their insurance abruptly terminated. That figure has now risen to 1.7 million and with further inaction by Congress could reach 3.6 million in the months ahead.
The long-tern unemployed — those out of work for 27 weeks or more — today constitute 35.8 percent of the workforce, more than triple what it once was.
Needless to say, this termination in benefits has been a catastrophic development for the affected workers and their families, who are now threatened with loss of homes, cars and other necessities of life. So how did it all happen?
We go back to the budget deal struck by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, co-chairs of the 29-member House-Senate committee, whose job was to reconcile different versions of the budget. This joint committee decided not to include continuation of unemployment insurance in the budget and both bodies of Congress went along with the exclusion. So December 28 came and went, and while members of Congress were home enjoying the holidays, they left the long-term jobless workers deprived of the income they relied on to sustain themselves.
There are two aspects of this situation that need to be emphasized. The first is that in past decades, virtually every time unemployment benefits were about to expire, Congress voted to extend them without a lot of controversy. But not this time. Welcome to the age of austerity and the relentless drive by right-wing forces to obliterate safety net programs where possible and to defund substantially those left standing.
The other striking fact has to do with the role of Democratic Party lawmakers supported by labor. They endorsed and voted for a budget deal that left long-term unemployed workers without continuing compensation. While a few Democratic senators expressed reservations beforehand about this critical omission, all 53 of them plus the two independents caved in and voted for the deal. In the House of Representatives, 163 Democrats voted for the budget measure, making possible its enactment into law.
As former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., a Democrat from Tennessee, pointed out, if the Democrats had put up a real fight they could have prevailed in making continuation of unemployment compensation part of the budget. The Republicans would have had no choice but to go along. After all, they could not have afforded to shut the government down again, this time because of a disagreement over a benefit that was heretofore an established part of the political landscape in this country.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, on December 13, 2013, helped put the loss workers experienced on the budget deal in context. He wrote, “Extended benefits weren’t renewed, so 1.3 million workers will be cut off at the end of this month, and many more will see their benefits run out in the months that follow.” Then he added, “But the larger picture is one of years of deeply destructive policy, imposing gratuitous suffering on working Americans.”
What happened here is that the needs of the jobless were subordinated to the drive for “bipartisanship.” The result was hailed as an example of how both major parties can work together. But is that in the interest of the working class majority? After all, this “togetherness” was accomplished by throwing jobless workers under the bus.
Subsequent events have confirmed that reliance on the Democratic Party to protect the interests of working people is a dead-end strategy. When Democratic lawmakers approved a budget that dropped unemployment compensation for the long term unemployed, these lawmakers assured us not to worry, that the compensation would be restored in a separate bill. But on February 6, the Senate could not even muster sufficient votes to approve a three-month extension and Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the issue was off the table for an indefinite period.
The politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties have failed us. While labor leaders criticized Congress’ default, labor’s fight to maintain unemployment compensation was not what it needed to be. Issuing statements, lobbying, and encouraging letters to the editor are useful tactics, but they are no substitute for organizing a massive labor/community movement that demonstrates its power in the streets. Absent this, labor’s voice is discounted and dismissed by the politicians, who are more answerable to wealthy contributors to their campaigns than they are to people in desperate need, who currently lack the political and economic clout to keep what they have.
Unfortunately, there is a tragic history of labor’s failure to mobilize when confronted with attacks on safety net programs. For example, in 1983, the Reagan administration, with the help of an overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress voting in support, was successful in cutting Social Security benefits. [The Democrats voted by a margin of 163 to 54 in the House and 26 to 6 in the Senate for the cuts.] Labor failed to mobilize to prevent that from happening.
Just days ago, Congress approved an $8.6 billion cut in food stamp funding over 10 years, again with an overwhelming majority of Democrats voting in favor. Labor did not mobilize its ranks together with its allies and the cuts were enacted.
Now the door to unemployment compensation has been slammed shut, which should have triggered massive protest actions led by labor, but again no such actions were called.
In the future, further right-wing assaults on safety net programs — especially Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid — will be unleashed, and unless a real labor fightback strategy based on mass action is agreed to and implemented, these programs will inevitably suffer the same fate as those described above.
The fight goes on to restore unemployment benefits, which a great majority of the American people supports. The challenge we face today is organizing a sufficiently broad-based and unified movement that can wrest a victory on this issue over the corporate class and the politicians who do its bidding. Such a movement, if it is to succeed, must be independent of the major political parties and committed to advancing the health, welfare, security and well-being of the 99%. That is the way and the only way to protect, preserve and expand the safety net, which the 1% is so anxious to shred.