Organizing the Unemployed

At last count, conservatively speaking, 13.2 million Americans were unemployed, and according to Paul Krugman, we can expect the numbers to keep rising through 2010. The spirit-crushing reality of those figures has led several commentators to pen editorials bemoaning the passive state of the American worker. While laid-off French workers bossnap (kidnap their bosses) and the Chinese Commerce Minister warns of unemployment-related unrest, Americans have exhibited few signs of protest.

It hasn't always been this way. During the Great Depression, the unemployed -- often led by political radicals -- engaged in militant action. They restored gas heating to those who could no longer afford it, reinstated broke families in their homes, and pressed government for more aid. In 1975, the Philadelphia Unemployment Project was launched in order to organize the poor and unemployed. But where is such outrage and organization today?

"Before protest reaches the scale where it makes its way onto the political agenda, you've got to have a sense that this is a collective problem," says Frances Fox Piven, a professor at the City University of New York and co-author of the book Poor People's Movements, which documents instances of mass lower-class defiance. "There is a lot of small stuff happening, and I think, but I'm not sure, something like a nascent movement is developing. I hope so, because I think that is the way to get the Obama administration to act decisively."

Although the masses have remained quiet so far, several groups are attempting to foster a sense of solidarity among those most affected by the financial crisis. In February, Tom Lewandowski, a laid-off union electrician, founded the UAEWI in response to Indiana's rising unemployment rate, then pushing past 10 percent. Former UNITE organizer Jack McKay formed FAM back in 2002, to address the jobs hemorrhaging from eastern Maine's manufacturing sector. Both men saw the need to create a social network for laid-off workers who, along with their jobs, lost the support structure of their union when they needed it most. The founders of grass-roots groups such as the Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers Initiative (UAEWI) and Food AND Medicine (FAM) see their organizations as proto-unions of the unemployed, channeling workers' anger and disenchantment into a productive force.

"The response has been very positive from the unemployed," says Lewandowski, who was an AFL-CIO liaison to the Polish Solidarity movement. "They've been participating in meetings, standing in picket lines outside the unemployment office, and going down to Indianapolis. We created a community-based movement similar to what Solidarity did in Poland in the 1980s, representing people in a specific labor market, rather than relating to a specific workplace or trade. And the unemployed are the fastest-growing segment of our labor market."

Lewandowski is fresh off the victory of Indiana House Bill 1379, which replenished the state's unemployment-insurance fund. Republicans saddled the bill with significant benefit cuts, in order to give laid-off workers an "incentive" to find new jobs. But when the legislation passed on April 29, the cuts had been stripped. UAEWI took an early stance against the cuts.

Food AND Medicine -- thus named "because in the richest country in the world, you shouldn't have to choose between food and medicine," McKay says -- cut its teeth on local health-care reform advocacy and continues to lobby Maine politicians on issues such as universal health care and the Employee Free Choice Act. FAM also offers assistance with heating-oil costs, runs a food bank, and has forged a cooperative with farmers to provide affordable, locally grown food to its members. "Workers take care of workers," McKay says. "It's not a hand out. [We're] saying you can't do this alone."

Despite these successes, both organizations face significant challenges, principally from the very demographic they are trying to organize. The unemployed tend to be isolated and ashamed, often blaming themselves for their condition. "It's very hard for people to open up and share what our society says is a personal fuck-up," McKay says. Isolation is multiplied by the fact that looking for a job, retraining, taking night courses, and sorting through piles of bills and forms can take up more time -- and be far more stressful -- than working a regular job.

"It's easier to get people who are employed to be active than it is to get the unemployed involved," McKay says. "The unemployed are too busy. Idle hands are the devil's workshop, and the system makes damn sure their hands are not idle."

Underfunded and understaffed (UAEWI only has two full-time employees),] local efforts can accomplish only so much without a broader reach. This is the point where the AFL-CIO hopes to step in. In early April, the federation's Working America group launched the "Unemployment Lifeline" in an attempt to provide what Karen Nussbaum, Working America's executive director, calls an online "organizational home" for the unemployed. The site provides "a cross between a wiki and a yellow pages" to help struggling families track down local resources, such as child care and food banks. In its first two weeks, the site racked up 26,000 visits and 133,000 page views.

"This isn't about passively waiting it out," Nussbaum says. "It is about changing the policies that led to this crisis in the first place. To get people engaged in providing solutions that go beyond their own needs."

But it is not clear whether Nussbaum's ambitious aims will be fulfilled. A national movement, energized by a collective understanding of inequality, does not seem to be materializing. To be sure, the Unemployed Lifeline site could be helpful for networking between local organizations such as UAEWI and FAM, which are already organizing the unemployed on the ground. But until more organizations of that nature emerge, the lifeline has little news to pass around.

In the meantime, the AFL-CIO's money might be better spent encouraging local initiatives to organize the unemployed. In the absence of the mass radical parties of the 1930s or the tradition of working-class rebellion in Europe, such grass-roots initiatives may be the best way to reach out to the unemployed and, perhaps, eventually form them into an effective political movement that will be able to pressure the federal government.

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