Chicago unemployment activist’s message of hope

CHICAGO – As jobless statistics remain stubbornly high in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, growing numbers of Americans are facing the grueling prospect of long-term unemployment. Currently, 6 million Americans have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. What the statistics don’t show is the hopelessness and humiliation felt by these workers.

When Janet Edburg, a lead activist of the South Halsted Unemployed Action Center, was laid off from her job as a shipping and receiving clerk at a Chicago photo lab equipment manufacturer three years ago, she experienced first hand the despair felt by millions of unemployed workers.

A familiar story in today’s economy, Janet’s company experienced a loss in business due to the downturn, coupled with management’s failure to keep up with changes in technology and a bungled attempt at outsourcing part of their operations to China. Janet’s schedule was cut to three days a week. “I knew it was going downhill when they got rid of the fabrication department,” she said. Then, after 32 years of service, Janet’s job was cut as her company downsized to just five employees.

The reality of the recession hit hard. “I didn’t think those problems would affect me. I worked hard all those years. I felt like my dignity was taken away. I felt like giving up,” Janet said.

In a barren job market, Janet found few prospects for a woman in her 50s. “It’s age discrimination,” she said. “They’ll hire you in your 30s, but after that, they don’t want you.” After sending out hundreds of resumes and applications, Janet’s 99th week of unemployment benefits ended last July.

Fortunately, Janet, a widow with three grown children, found support from family and friends. “Without them, I would have been homeless. They helped me when I needed it most,” she said. Another support Janet found in the isolation imposed by joblessness was the Unemployed Action Center in this city’s Bridgeport neighborhood. Active with the center for about a year, Janet quickly became a leader and a voice for the unemployed by speaking out at the state Capitol and getting media interest in her story, which reflects the experience of millions of jobless workers. The Unemployed Action Center also helps jobless workers develop resume writing skills, get their utilities bills paid, and navigate the benefits system. The center is also a source of fellowship and moral support for workers.

Janet, who says she wasn’t politically active until her job loss, now wants to help others in her situation to find hope, and to fight back. “We should fight for other people’s rights, not just our own,” she says.

Janet makes sure elected representatives focus on helping the unemployed through legislative action, rather than political grandstanding for the next election with promises of “jobs, jobs, jobs.” She recently met with state representatives to ask for legislation to extend unemployment benefits. “They have to fight to make these changes. We’ll be in another Depression if they don’t.”        

Janet sees obstructionist policies of the Republicans as a major obstacle to the interests of the unemployed. “They’re taking away the American Dream.”

Janet’s new role as an activist has been received positively by her kids. She says her family “is 100% behind” her activism. Now her plans include furthering her education to improve her job prospects.

Janet’s advice to unemployed people is to never give up: “If you want change, you’ve got to do something – sign petitions, speak up. Get off your butt and get involved.”

For Janet, change for a better future began when she got active: “You have to stand up for yourself – when you do that, you’re standing up for other people.”

Photo: Janet Edburg in front of the Unemployed Action Center. PW/Chris Elliott