Roughly 18 months ago I attended an interesting meeting in New York City at the offices of a major progressive funder. We had been brought together for a brainstorm on what it might look like to organize the unemployed. Not much has happened since then. The unemployment rate is largely unchanged.
It turns out that organizing the unemployed is extremely difficult. As a group, they are so diverse that fault lines appear easily. Leaders disappear as soon as they get a job. Prolonged unemployment brings with it depression and despair, not great qualities for a movement. The unemployed are actually a constellation of constituencies that require multiple approaches.
The long term unemployed (including many people of color in our cities) aren't like the wave of those who had some job stability only to see it taken away in the last few years. Many are young college graduates who haven't fully entered the job market. Millions more found long term strategies that appear to remove them from the rolls of the unemployed, such as graduate school, making babies, early retirement, or disability/SSI. The best organized faction of the unemployed, the 99ers (so called because they have been jobless for over two years and wish that benefits would be extended to cover their situation) aren't serving as leadership for the unemployed more generally.
But still. Shouldn't someone (the unions, Working America, Center for Community Change, Democracy Alliance, MoveOn, anyone?) have made organizing the unemployed some kind of priority?
I'm not privy to the specific reasons why almost nothing has materialized. But some of the reasons not stated might include the following:
1. Top down structures aren't interested in energizing a movement that might not follow them in the long term.
2. The unemployed are unattractive. DC based progressive outfits aren't immune to thinking of the unemployed as less successful than they are, less comfortable to interact with. The unemployed are more like the mentally ill or the ex-offender community than like racial, gender and issue based constituency groups.
3. In times of weakness, people gravitate to families, hometowns and emotional safety zones. The work of organizing demands that participants behave otherwise.
4. Policy proposals to spend money for jobs is largely about paying for existing jobs to save them, not a 21st Century WPA that will move quickly to supply millions of jobless Americans with paid work. The unemployed will not unite to save the jobs of currently employed public employees.
The bottom line for me is that someone isn't doing their job. Millions of young people have already spent valuable years back home with their parents, serving lattes and watching day time television. They will never catch up to fresh faced college grads who entered the job market. Never. Progressives, unions and community organizing groups should be spending serious resources on programs to organize them.