D.C. activists hoping to jump-start organizing among the unemployed
In many areas of the country, the unemployed are starting to organize, as shown by this demonstration in Florida. In the D.C. area, too, the Claudia Jones School is trying to get the unemployed activated. | Alex Menendez via AP

WASHINGTON—The Claudia Jones School for Political Education recently hosted an Unemployment and Tenant Organizing Town Hall for residents in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) area in the form of an online Zoom Webinar. Seven panelists who work in the local area, as well as one panelist from a national labor organization, were invited.

The panelists included: Cheryl Brunson of the Brookland Manor and Brentwood Village Tenants Association (D.C.’s largest remaining affordable housing complexes), Rosemary Ndubuizu and Shakeara Mingo of ONE DC, Zillah Wesley of Poor People’s Campaign D.C., Jon Liss of New Virginia Majority, Brad Crowder of the Communist Party USA Labor Commission, and Will Merrifield, a candidate running for D.C. Council who has worked closely with tenant associations around the area advocating for universal housing, education, and employment opportunities.

Organizers with the Claudia Jones School say the aim of the event was to facilitate a community-led dialogue between organizers in the area and to put unemployed people and tenants in contact with one another to strategize about ways to advocate for themselves as a collective.

The discussion in the town hall was lively. It covered a lot of ground—from the current crisis that poor and working-class people of the DMV find themselves in economically to solutions that empower themselves through collective action. One of the highlights of the conversation addressed the ways in which the current crisis has shown how contemporary capitalism targets racial groups within the poor and working-class in different ways in order to cause division.

Rosemary Ndubuizu of ONE DC made this a central point of discussion, urging participants to “have a critical discussion about why different segments of the working class are pitted against each other.” This topic came up many times and even brought the legacy of Claudia Jones herself into the discussion about the divisions and contradictions that racial capitalism sows within communities of poor and working people by weaponizing concepts like race and gender to keep the masses divided and unable to oppose to the ruling class.

The Claudia Jones School is currently contemplating ways to enhance dialogue between participants and panelists in an online format such as a webinar, seeking to raise the voices of everyone in the discussion while maintaining safety and technological feasibility. The intention is to create a consistent meeting place for poor and working-class people in the community so that they can organize and mobilize in the face of untenable material conditions. The School aims to replicate similar strategies that the Communist Party USA used to create the successful Unemployed Councils (UC) during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Material conditions in the United States right now are similar to those that have spawned mass revolutionary movements and uprisings across history. Currently, 28 million renters, representing 22.5% of all U.S. households, are at risk of being evicted at this very moment—especially as eviction moratoriums lift around the country. These numbers do not even count the mass of undocumented folks who work and pay rent to exploitative property owners. This is a completely unsustainable economic situation for the poor and working-class people across the country.

As Jaime Cruz (who emceed the event and is a founding member of the Claudia Jones School) mentioned in the introduction to the town hall: “In moments of joblessness in the past, working people have coordinated the fightback against employers and forced the government to provide the necessary relief that working people needed…. It is this generation’s turn to pick up the mantle and build a mass movement of unemployed councils that will address the economic needs of our multi-racial working class in all areas of the country—inner urban, suburban, town and rural.”

In the past, the Unemployed Councils of the Great Depression got their start in the local communities of major cities like New York and D.C., which expanded to neighborhood units called “Councils of Action.” These local units were planned as the basis for national organizations of workers that would advance their political goals in preparation for the larger goal of abolishing the capitalist state.

The activists working for the unemployed at the Claudia Jones School are taking an approach similar to that which past organizers have taken during moments of great economic duress: starting locally to spark a mass of poor and working-class folk across the country who collaborate in advocating for their collective rights and establish new systems of governance in place of the outmoded institutions of the current capitalist system.

The hope is that town halls will focus on empowering marginalized people in the area and strengthen the struggle in two important ways: first, by recruiting unemployed workers into the organized labor movement to participate in building a broad unemployed movement and then second, when they go back to work, to help protect tenants who experience aggression from landlords employing the threat of eviction to violently coerce and extort renters during a global pandemic.

By building organizational strength, the hope is that on-the-ground organizing will actively weaken the power that landlords and employers wield against the poor and working-class people of the community. If tenants know that they have collective strength in numbers, and they are affirmed by large groups of their community members who demonstrate they’re ready to take action and back them up in solidarity, they will have the confidence to organize strikes, participate in protests, and advocate for change in the face of eviction and severely back-loaded rents.

A lot of support has already come in for these local efforts from across the DMV area, but the goal is to reach even more people who aren’t necessarily involved in organizations yet. A major hurdle, though, has been finding ways to reach out to residents at their homes during the isolated times of COVID-19.

The Claudia Jones School is encouraging people from other communities to share strategies and successes and to partner in organizing more such events going forward.


Sean Sullivan
Sean Sullivan

Long time D.C. resident, high-school English teacher, and community organizer for the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.