It isn't just the numbers that are shocking. It's knowing that every one of those 23.2 million Americans is a potentially productive citizen who is being deprived of his or her potential -- to support a family, to contribute to a community, to participate as a productive person in society and to foster a growing economy. This travesty is not just the result of the current economic downturn. It's also the result of the abuse and neglect of our economy and of working people in recent decades, and particularly in the last eight years.
A Union of the Unemployed needs to be an organization launched by a coalition of leading labor unions with the support of progressive groups and policy advocates, as well as grassroots civil and economic rights groups. It would be open to all -- unemployed, employed, underemployed, union members and non-union, students, retirees. It would not be a union in the traditional workplace, collective bargaining sense. It would need to be a largely web-based national grassroots organization, acting on policy and legislative advocacy, with a political action component and effective media spokespersons. To be effective this new organization can not be a "fringe" or single-issue effort. It would need the resources of organized labor including SEIU, the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters among others, and the support of other groups with organizational and online communications skills.
With the introduction of the Employee Free Choice Act in both the House and Senate the political battle for this crucial piece of labor legislation has just been joined. Launching an organization like a Union of the Unemployed would open up a significant new flank in that battle -- bringing in support from Americans across the country, many of whom would not be union members but who could readily help support passage of EFCA and a host of critical initiatives needed to get the economy moving and create the jobs we need.
We will discuss, later in this posting, more specific ideas on what this new Union of the Unemployed -- and underemployed -- would look like, how it would work, what it could do, and how to build it's membership and support.
First we need to take an in-depth look at the scale of the current unemployment and underemployment situation.
The official Employment Situation Summary from the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) was unusually blunt on March, 6, 2009:
THE EMPLOYMENT SITUATION: FEBRUARY 2009
Nonfarm payroll employment continued to fall sharply in February (-651,000),
and the unemployment rate rose from 7.6 to 8.1 percent, the Bureau of Labor
Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor reported today. Payroll employ-
ment has declined by 2.6 million in the past 4 months. In February, job
losses were large and widespread across nearly all major industry sectors.
Unemployment (Household Survey Data)
The number of unemployed persons increased by 851,000 to 12.5 million in
February, and the unemployment rate rose to 8.1 percent. Over the past 12
months, the number of unemployed persons has increased by about 5.0 million,
and the unemployment rate has risen by 3.3 percentage points. (See table
The unemployment rate continued to trend upward in February for adult
men (8.1 percent), adult women (6.7 percent), whites (7.3 percent), blacks
(13.4 percent), and Hispanics (10.9 percent). The jobless rate for teen-
agers was little changed at 21.6 percent. The unemployment rate for Asians
was 6.9 percent in February, not seasonally adjusted. (See tables A-1, A-2,
Among the unemployed, the number of job losers and persons who completed
temporary jobs increased by 716,000 to 7.7 million in February. This mea-
sure has grown by 3.8 million in the last 12 months. (See table A-8.)
The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more)
increased by 270,000 to 2.9 million in February. Over the past 12 months,
the number of long-term unemployed was up by 1.6 million. (See table A-9.)
In February, the number of persons who worked part time for economic rea-
sons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) rose by 787,000,
reaching 8.6 million. The number of such workers rose by 3.7 million over
the past 12 months. This category includes persons who would like to work
full time but were working part time because their hours had been cut back
or because they were unable to find full-time jobs. (See table A-5.)
Persons Not in the Labor Force (Household Survey Data)
About 2.1 million persons (not seasonally adjusted) were marginally at-
tached to the labor force in February, 466,000 more than a year earlier.
These individuals wanted and were available for work and had looked for a
job sometime in the prior 12 months. They were not counted as unemployed
because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey.
Among the marginally attached, there were 731,000 discouraged workers in
February, up by 335,000 from a year earlier. Discouraged workers are per-
sons not currently looking for work because they believe no jobs are avail-
able for them. The other 1.3 million persons marginally attached to the
labor force in February had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding
the survey for reasons such as school attendance or family responsibilities.
(See table A-13.)
How Unemployment is Measured by BLS reveals that many unemployed are not counted as unemployed but classified as "not in the labor force".
Who is not in the labor force?
Labor force measures are based on the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years old and over. Excluded are persons under 16 years of age, all persons confined to institutions such as nursing homes and prisons, and persons on active duty in the Armed Forces. As mentioned previously, the labor force is made up of the employed and the unemployed. The remainder—those who have no job and are not looking for one—are counted as "not in the labor force."
(emphasis is mine)
The personal stories of economic hardship and unemployment are legion. There are more than 30,000 such stories posted on the Democratic National Committee's new Organizing for America website page Economic Crisis: Your Stories. Here are just a few:
I was able to hold several jobs thanks to the wonderful supervisors at my company who saw a single mom willing to do anything to keep an income and health insurance for her child. Over time I lost all of them. Without help, my child will suffer. We need help and creating and saving jobs will keep me in my home and with my child. I felt sick for those with foreclosed homes, losing their jobs, but I was not living it. I didn't have a clue. To the people who are in the same situation or worse: I'm so very sorry, keep your chin up and tell your story even if you are not good at things like this. I'm not. Learn what you can about politics and this package as I am doing. Together we all can all make a difference. Let's get back to work.
Hi. I am a woman who is 54 years old and I have been working since I was 13 years old. In July 2008 I was a laid off from a job I loved and planned to work at until I retired. I had to use my retirement money to help my daughter and son-in-law pay their rent, because my son-in-law is a construction worker, he hasn't been working and my daughter gets unemployment. I can't afford cobra so I have no health insurance, and I have kidney disease but I haven't gone to the doctors lately. I do work part time at a hotel as a desk clerk, I worked there even when I had my other full time job. I have tried to find work but with no luck. I am really worried about myself but especially my kids and my grandchildren....
Hi. My name is Debbie and for the first time in 17 years I'm unemployed. I want a job, but there just aren't many jobs available in Indiana. Up until December of 2008, I had always had a job. I'm not asking for a handout, I want to work! I worked for the same employer for almost 5 years before being laid off in December along with 51 other employees. This was my former employer's second round of layoffs. I applied for unemployment benefits on December 31, 2008, but I still haven't received anything. I don't have health insurance because I can't afford COBRA . I don't qualify for public assistance because once my unemployment does go through, I'll make too much money ($390 per week). I have a family and I hope that no one gets sick before I get a new job. I want to see Congress pass the stimulus package immediately, because ordinary people just want to work. We need jobs!
The March 11 BLS report on state and regional unemployment for January, 2009 shows the rapidly deteriorating employment situation is nationwide.
While unemployment has now impacted every sector and strata of society, for young people, African-Americans, Latinos and the less-educated the situation is much worse.
And in rural America, what started out as a mild recession has quite suddenly reached alarming proportions. NPR's Planet Money blog reports BLS statistics (with map) that job losses in rural counties in December 2008 were nearly 19 times the number of job losses in the previous 12 months combined.
It seems unlikely that the employment picture is going to improve any time soon.
Part of the reason is that companies, as well as states and municipalities, have been eliminating jobs not only in response to the economic downturn, but also in anticipation of a future continuation of that downturn. In addition, many companies are cutting even further, anticipating that future borrowing needs, if only to remain in business, will -- assuming credit becomes available -- have lenders predicating credit on already-implemented cost and labor reductions.
The effect is to further depress wages and incomes, while exacerbating the vast income disparities that have been weakening the economy over time and thus made it so vulnerable to the current crisis.
In a column last month titled Who’ll Stop the Pain? Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman looked at some disturbing assessments contained in a summary of the Federal Reserve's recent open market committee meeting, including this quote:
"All participants anticipated that unemployment would remain substantially above its longer-run sustainable rate at the end of 2011, even absent further economic shocks; a few indicated that more than five to six years would be needed for the economy to converge to a longer-run path characterized by sustainable rates of output growth and unemployment and by an appropriate rate of inflation."
Now we’re in the midst of a crisis that bears an eerie, troubling resemblance to the onset of the Depression; interest rates are already near zero, and still the economy plunges. How and when will it all end?
To be sure, the Obama administration is taking action to help the economy, but it’s trying to mitigate the slump, not end it. The stimulus bill, on the administration’s own estimates, will limit the rise in unemployment but fall far short of restoring full employment.
On March 6, after reviewing the just-released unemployment figures, economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research wrote in his Jobs Bytes column:
The economy is in a free fall with no obvious brakes in place. The recent forecasts, used in analyzing the stimulus and the budget, which projected 8.5 percent unemployment for the 4th quarter, now look impossibly optimistic. The unemployment rate is likely to hit 8.5 percent by March and will almost certainly cross 9.0 percent by the early summer. Without substantial additional stimulus, it could cross 10.0 percent by year-end.
Right now, America needs A Union of the Unemployed.
Here are some initial ideas on how to make it work:
With a small initial staff, a website and email lists, the new organization is launched with the support of major unions, labor organizations, progressive policy groups and advocates, leading civil rights organizations.
The grassroots 'membership'-building is generated largely via the web and email sign-ups. It is open to all -- employed, unemployed, underemployed, students, union and non-union, retirees. A strictly voluntary supporting contribution could be an option available on the website at various modest levels.
Press conferences, releases and media interviews help spread the word, as do the online communities supporting the effort.
The website provides updated news and information on economic, policy and legislative issues on a national and state level.
'Membership' can also be built by organizers at unemployment centers and workplaces with email sign-up cards.
Meetings with coalition partners, legislators and administration officials are arranged to push for the boldest, most effective initiatives to generate economic recovery.
A key immediate focus would be on national and state legislation to significantly expand the scope of unemployment insurance and health insurance.
The effort would expand the base of support for the Employee Free Choice Act, earning unions new allies and putting organized labor out front in advocating for the larger community of working and unemployed Americans. Over time, the effect would be to have a lot more people open to joining unions when they do, hopefully, go back to work.
People with a sharper marketing bent might come up with some better names for this organization.
Most importantly, though, an organization like a Union of the Unemployed and Underemployed could bring the moral and political force of many thousands, perhaps millions of Americans to bear directly on economic policy -- and that itself could just help reverse this tragic slide, bringing jobs and a real economic recovery to America.
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