Organizing the Unemployed

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A disheveled man stands in a local post
office asking for spare change. Another
man hands him a dollar and strikes up a
conversation, fishers-of-men style. The
second man describes a local effort
among unemployed and underemployed
workers to get together and work for
their own agenda on their own terms: jobs and job creation
programs, equitable hiring priorities for economic
development and ‘stimulus’ projects, extended unemployment
benefits, dignity and self-determination.
The Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers
Alliance, (UAEWA), a project of the Central Illinois Jobs
with Justice and the AFL-CIO’s Working America program,
also has a hotline (469-6111) where Sandra, a retired public
aid worker, helps callers connect to local services of various
sorts, offers help filling out claim forms, refers callers
to knowledgeable advocates within a network of contacts,
and—perhaps most importantly—helps identify potential
activists and organizers to build the local movement of the
unemployed and underemployed.
A local union laborer who has seen 90 percent of his
usual work evaporate, a former school bus driver, a member
of the Safe Haven homeless community, and others are
pitching in to build this movement in Champaign County.
This project follows a pattern that is emerging in cities
around the country, from Maine to the Carolinas, to Texas
and California. In Indiana, Tom Lewandowski, a laid-off
union electrician, has been organizing unemployed and
‘precariously employed’ workers for a year this January.
The grassroots group pickets unemployment offices,
protests at the state capitol, and holds meetings of unemployed
workers to make their own decisions.
The UAEWA describes itself as a kind of broad-based
union, negotiating with local development boards for job creation
programs, picketing for extended benefits, and pressuring
public officials to change spending priorities. In April the
UAEWA won a showdown with Indiana Republicans over an
unemployment benefits bill, defeating draconian cuts.
“A record 20 million-plus people collected unemployment
benefits at some point in 2009,” according to a New Year’s
Eve story from AP/ABC News. Half the states have already
run through the trust funds out of which they pay unemployment
benefits and are projected to borrow $90 billion
from the feds by 2012. There are now approximately six
workers looking for each available job in the US.
Yet so many categories of people have been excluded
from these official estimates under successive White
House Administrations, each erasing a new chunk of jobless
Americans from the official picture, that many economists
say the ‘real’ unemployment rate is at least twice the
official rate—and it reached a 68-year high in 2009,
according to Dollars & Sense magazine.
Higher rates are more in line with the observant citizen’s
estimations. When Detroit’s official unemployment
rate hit 27% in October, Mayor David Bing scoffed that
the number was as believable as Santa Claus. Rightly so, as
it turns out: the Detroit News reported Dec. 16 that a University
of Michigan economist finds that as many as half of
Detroit workforce may now be jobless.
The lower “U-3 rate of unemployment usually cited in
the media does not count workers who have given up
looking for work, or who have been unable for reasons of
health, family, transportation, or other factors, to actively
look for a job in the last four weeks; who have been forced
to accept reduced hours; who have gone back to school in
an effort to replace lost jobs; “independent contractors” or ‘self-employed’ who may have seen former employee status
convert to 1099 contracts; and so on.
A much more comprehensive but less publicized government
statistic is the ‘U-6’ rate, which some economists
say still undercounts the jobless. In October, the national
U-6 rate officially hit 17.5% but it is much higher for some
groups, such as teenagers (over 32%), US-born Latinos
with a high school diploma but no college (over 35%), and
black youth (over 40%). Yet these same groups may also
be particularly underserved by federal aid programs,
including recent economic ‘stimulus’ programs.
Public economic assistance ought to focus mostly to
those with the most need. This has been a central
demand of grassroots efforts around the country, including
rallies here in Central Illinois. However the reverse
seems to be happening. Government money has disproportionately
gone to Wall Street and big banks, and even
‘Main Street’ bailout funds have not made it to those who
need it most.
As a CBS/AP story reported this July 8, a House oversight
committee found that many of the neediest areas of
the country were not receiving Recovery Act funds.
According to a recent Hart Research Group study, less than
a third of Latino Americans have seen any benefit.
Chicago Public Radio found recently that less than 10%
of stimulus funds spent by the state Department of Transportation
went to minority-owned businesses. And locally
the News-Gazette reported August 16 that the counties in
Central Illinois with the highest unemployment were getting
less recovery money, and the three counties with the
lowest unemployment got the most stimulus money.
“Cash for clunkers” and the various federal tax breaks
meant to facilitate car, home, appliance, and other purchases
are out of reach for the poorest Americans. The
now-famous ‘shovel ready’ projects created work primarily
for those who already had jobs—who were certainly in
danger of reduced income—but those with the greatest
need benefitted little or none.
Close on the heels of the dramatic failures of the deregulated
marketplace, many workers—currently employed
or not—are now learning that relying on the goodwill of
federal, state and local governments may be every bit the
losing proposition that marketplace faith proved. This was
the principal theme of a “People’s Thanksgiving” gathering
of local activists, advocates and aid recipients in November
2008, a potluck meal and discussion format that has
become a monthly event here. As union leader Gene Vanderport
put it, “We as a community have to come together
and rescue ourselves.”
In May, local organizers held a “Central Illinois Social
Forum” to develop these ideas: community gardening,
anti-eviction activism, urban justice, and a jobs creation
program for the twenty-first century—with workers themselves
at the center.
Now, with a grant from the Illinois Disciples Foundation
to cover expenses, organizers are fanning out to leaflet
food pantries, unemployment and aid centers, churches,
and union halls. The ‘coming together’ has been tricky.
Job-needy workers actually have very little free time for
meetings. Living arrangements may be fluid, and access to
phones, computers, and other means of contact may be
unreliable. And hope is in short supply these days. Yet
“rescuing ourselves” would appear to be the only option.
And there may just be, as Francis Fox Piven the author
of Poor People’s Movements told the American Prospect
magazine this summer, “something like a nascent movement…
developing.” The economic crisis may not have
reached the depths of the Great Depression yet, when
Unemployment Councils organized neighborhood selfhelp
in the nation’s cities. But the need has not been
greater in most of our lifetimes for the unemployed—and
‘anxiously employed’—to organize.
Call Sandra at 469-6111 to pitch in.

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