“The right to work is the right to life.”
— American Federation of Labor Convention, Chicago, December 1893
“Thus, because of the planlessness of the twenties, because of the lack of courageous action immediately following the collapse, the nation lost 105,000,000 man-years of production in the thirties.”
— Full Employment Act of 1945, Hearings, p. 1104
Unemployment and underemployment are causing misery, homelessness, hunger, and fear in the lives of tens of millions of working class people and our families, devastating communities, and impacting people of color, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and most of all Native Americans disproportionately.
Those with money, the rich and the powerful, may find the masses of the unemployed an annoyance but, as Franklin Folsom writes in “Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed 1808-1942,” for the unemployed ourselves, leaving “a job means leaving a center and moving toward a periphery. It means leaving a collective pattern and entering formless isolation. Uniting under a boss or against a boss is a clear, understandable concept, but uniting against bosslessness is a very different matter.”
For the unemployed, watching our meager bank accounts drain away, experiencing the loss, one by one, of those sustaining resources— electricity, telephone, home, car, food—that keep our children and our spouses and ourselves whole and active is like sitting in a room out of which the air is being pumped, and knowing that each breath leaves less of what we need to survive.
In the midst of these challenges, community and collective struggle counteract the shame and fear that one may experience, and provide a path to expressing just demands for work or bread, jobs or income now. As 30 million unemployed and countless more underemployed working class people and our families struggle to survive today, it is urgent to demand that our society respond with aid that meets our needs and by providing work to all who want employment. The unemployed united, together with our allies, can fan with the breath of struggle the embers of hope that burn in our hearts.
A storm of numbers: The working class needs jobs or income now
Unemployment statistics are dispassionate reflections of a tsunami of economic pain rolling over the U.S. and global working class. It is important to hear the voices of millions of unemployed women, men, and youth asking for help behind the statistical recitation of percentages.
The national unemployment rate of 9.7%, with all 50 states and the District of Columbia reporting year over year increases, is a numeric reflection of families unable to pay the bills for the basics: food, mortgage or rent, electricity, gasoline, heating oil, car loans, medical bills, and school or child care fees.
El Centro, California, has 26.8% unemployment. California, Michigan, and Indiana all have regions with unemployment exceeding 15%.
The official unemployment rate for African-Americans is almost double that of the national rate, with Black men’s unemployment at 16.4%; the Hispanic unemployment rate is 12.2%.
The unemployment rate for youth 18-24 is a staggering 17.3%.
Native Americans have the rates of highest unemployment, ranging from 50% to 90% in different regions.
These rates are all “official” unemployment figures which vastly understate the real counts of the unemployed and ignore millions of the underemployed or the long term unemployed. Actual unemployment rates may be as much as double the official figures.
Many of the unemployed have depending upon us for sustenance a spouse, children, partners, or aged or infirm relatives or friends. The unemployed are a vast uncounted mass struggling to survive.
The phenomenon of unemployment is not limited to the United States. The International Labor Organization reported in January, “The global economic crisis is expected to lead to a dramatic increase in the number of people joining the ranks of the unemployed, working poor and those in vulnerable employment … Global unemployment in 2009 could increase over 2007 by a range of 18 million to 30 million workers, and more than 50 million if the situation continues to deteriorate.”
Highlighting the underlying crisis of overproduction which fuels this tsunami of unemployment, productivity in the United States rose 1.8% in Q1 2009, as hours worked fell faster than output. At the same time, real earnings fell by 1.2%. The masses of the unemployed did nothing to cause our joblessness, which results from cyclical and well documented capitalist overproduction; cycles which, along with political expediency, have been causing periodic mass unemployment since the early 1800s in the United States.
Working women, men, and youth will benefit from joining together to demand our needs be met, whether in union committees, church groups, community organizations or national organizations.
The AFL-CIO is calling for a second round of economic recovery programs, “The challenge of fixing this economic mess is enormous—and urgent. Creating good jobs that cannot be outsourced is central to the solution.”
Their demands include:
• Extend unemployment benefits immediately, by at least seven weeks, to help the hundreds of thousands of workers who would otherwise exhaust their benefits in the near term.
• Increase food stamp spending as needed to help families cope with the downturn.
Increase aid to state and local governments.
• Bolster the financial stability of independent government agencies such as the U.S. Postal Service.
• Increase spending for needed infrastructure and clean energy projects, even for those projects with a time horizon longer than two years.
The National Jobs for All Coalition is organizing a National Conference to Create Living-Wage Jobs For All, Meet Human Needs & Sustain the Environment in New York, Nov. 13-14. Further information is available at their web site, .
Providing work is a social responsibility. The current economic crisis has been impacting working families for over a year; high unemployment continues to take its toll. A social response is urgently required. The under- and unemployed united, with our allies, can fight to create the programs we need: jobs or income, and hope, now.
Eric Brooks is a recently laid off high-tech worker living in Indiana.