Unemployment forum: ‘Bosses will throw you away’ when they’re done with you
Panelists for the Aug. 16th Unemployment Town Hall Forum included, from top: Elise Bryant, Coalition of Labor Union Women; Judith LeBlanc, Native Organizers Alliance; Bill Fletcher, Jr., GlobalAfricanWorker.com; Kooper Caraway, Sioux Falls CLC / AFL-CIO; Joe Henry, LULAC - Iowa; and Brad Crowder, Unemployed Austin. | People's World

CHICAGO—“You’re only part of the machine the bosses need, and once you’re done, they’ll throw you away,” Kooper Caraway, president of the Sioux Falls, S.D., Central Labor Council, told an online Unemployed Town Hall Forum on Aug. 16. That’s what bosses tried to do to workers at the big Smithfield pork processing plant in his town, he said, and it’s what they’ll do to workers everywhere if given the chance.

Thirty million people are officially jobless in the United States, but according to the AFL-CIO and many labor economists, the true number thrown out of work by the pandemic-induced economic crisis may be 50 million or more. Trying to organize workers in the midst of such an unprecedented catastrophe is no easy task, but that’s exactly what Caraway and a diverse collection of experienced activists and organizations came together to strategize around at the 2-hour Sunday gathering co-sponsored by People’s World and Organizing Upgrade.

The multiple waves of social disruption now hitting the U.S.—the coronavirus pandemic, Depression-era unemployment, racial suppression, and “10% of the U.S. population” in the streets in protest as a result—reveal “the genocidal gene of capitalism is re-emerging,” labor activist and scholar Bill Fletcher told the audience. “They don’t give a damn. They don’t give a shit.”

Caraway and Fletcher, executive editor of Global African Worker and a former education director and staffer for several unions and the AFL-CIO, were among a wide-ranging array of speakers at the forum, designed to discuss how to confront the crisis of mass employment but also how to take advantage of the opportunities for a drastic reconstruction of society in favor of workers, not capitalists.

The Unemployment Town Hall Forum was co-sponsored by People’s World and Organizing Upgrade.

The backdrop to the event was not only the joblessness crisis but also the paralysis in Washington, where political leaders are fumbling and squabbling about what to do. Workers, progressives, the labor movement, congressional Democrats, and civic groups are all campaigning for both massive structural changes to the economy and for continuing immediate aid to the jobless. But President Donald Trump and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stand in the way.

Cori Bush, the recent victor in the Democratic primary for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District in St. Louis, spoke at the town hall, emphasizing a theme that was heard repeatedly throughout the night: there can be no going back to what things were like before COVID-19.

“Let’s get through the crisis, yes, but we can’t pretend like we were good before,” she argued. Bush is expected to win in November in her heavily Democratic district and is set to become the first Black Lives Matter activist in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Speakers concentrated not only on the specifics of what the country faces now but also on the bigger picture of what is needed and the bold and massive mobilization it will take to win back jobs and a better future after the pandemic.

“A just transition” to a new economy and new society that works for workers “has become a big conversation, despite the interruption” of the pandemic and the ensuing depression, said Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance.

After all, “It’ll take a decade or more to recover from the Trump administration destroying the Environmental Protection Agency alone,” as well as the president’s blasting of safeguards against pollution and climate change, she said. It’s time to “think about how we govern,” LeBlanc stated.

The EPA isn’t the only agency or set of safeguards Trump has blown up. His administration is rife with anti-worker actions, too, both those which have driven joblessness up and those which curb and destroy worker rights, the speakers said.

In Indian Country, there has long existed a crisis of joblessness and lack of economic investment, but LeBlanc said that “American Indians have never been online like they have as a result of the coronavirus.” She said there is a “social distancing pow-wow” of up to half-a-million members that is bringing Native peoples together and building connections among activists like never before.

“For women who are not in unions, this [pandemic] is devastating,” said Elise Bryant, a News Guild local Vice President and President of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. She noted that consistently throughout the pandemic women have lost their jobs at a more rapid pace than men, while also bearing the increased responsibility of child care amidst nationwide school closures.

“This is a system that never takes into account the well-being of children or the elderly,” Caraway added. Measures proposed to boost workers and combat capitalism include a Workers Bill of Rights, something Caraway first brought up at the 2017 AFL-CIO Convention in St. Louis. It was passed unanimously by the convention delegates.

Cori Bush, Democratic nominee for Congress in Missouri’s First Congressional District, also addressed the forum. | AP

Several panelists emphasized change must come from the bottom up and must also fit local conditions. “There’s no one size fits all,” Bryant said. LeBlanc especially cautioned against trying to fit today’s actions to change society into preconceived ideas or models from the past. She too emphasized the bottom-up nature of change to meet the needs of the people demanding it.

“If you impose a form that is preconceived, it’ll be out of step with where the people are at,” LeBlanc said. “Besides, there’s more than one way to skin the cat.”

Some of the other ways to organize included:

  • Making sure that organic protests, such as those against Floyd’s murder and U.S. racism, are channeled by leaders into concrete, specific, and continuing goals. That’s what the Occupy movement didn’t do, but that’s what Black Lives Matter leaders are doing, said panelist Joe Henry, president of the Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens and an on-the-ground political organizer. That also means more than just issuing statements; it means campaigning for those causes—such as permanent protections against joblessness—and moving people “into the streets.” Henry said, “We have to amplify those efforts. They (BLM) have a very Marxist discussion, talking about workers’ rights and how we all have to be engaged in the fight against police repression and for more democracy. That’s what people of color are already doing.” Henry also emphasized the need for basic assistance for workers in navigating the process of applying for benefits or aid, especially immigrant workers or the undocumented, who are often least familiar with the application processes or are unsure of what they qualify for.
  • Creating a nationwide “unemployed council,” as was tried in the 1930s, said Brad Crowder of Austin Unemployed. “We gotta take workers and build relationships” one by one, on and off the shop floor, he said. As that effort is built at the grassroots, interim moves include mobilizing now to throw Trump and other anti-worker politicians out in the Nov. 3 election, and connecting with organizations that provide practical help to jobless workers and especially migrant workers, including undocumented people. The Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation is already doing so, and Crowder’s group has been trading ideas and contacts with it. The masses of jobless also provide an opportunity to organize around issues affecting them, such as how they’ll pay for food, rent, and clothes, Crowder said. The Congress of Industrial Organizations did so among one million jobless in the 1930s, he noted. When they were re-employed, they took those organizing skills into industries and plants, and the labor movement boomed.
  • Educate, educate, educate. “The system was built on slavery and on thievery,” said Bryant. “They stole our land,” meaning the white takeover and destruction of Native American tribes, people, and communities. “And they stole our people” by importing Blacks from Africa to be slaves.
  • Bush said that she’s not waiting until she gets to Washington to be a voice for change. She’s already advocating “a $2,000-per-month universal income for all for up to one year” and a continuation of eviction and utility shutoff moratoriums. She also encouraged more workers—including those who’ve lost their jobs—to run for office. “We need working-class people in positions of power,” she said. “People are not just losing their jobs, they are losing their lives.”

Just as “the Depression changed the fundamental ways government functioned” to control capitalism, this set of crises means “we have to be gaming out how we’ll be focusing on meeting the needs of the people” both immediately and in the future, LeBlanc added. But you must “create a circle where everyone has a role to play.”

Speaking from the audience during the Q&A session, Jake Rosner of UNITE HERE Local 1 in Chicago said the members of his union are trying to do just that, providing local assistance to those thrown out of work by the pandemic and the depression. “Eighty percent of our 15,000 workers” in Chicago hotels and restaurants “were laid off, so we focused on food, on helping people pay their bills, and on helping them navigate the unemployment system.”

The local is also helping people fight evictions, just as activists did in the 1930s when they would come and put the furniture back into the homes of their evicted neighbors. Or farmers who would crowd into sheriffs’ sales, make sure an evicted farmer won the bidding for his land, for $1, and prevent others—especially creditors and speculators—from interfering.

With such neighbor-helping-neighbor tactics and united action, people gain experience in organizing and build up their power over time. “And organizing is just talking to people and recognizing their problems,” and devising ways to help them, as Caraway told the audience. Overhauling society is a long haul battle, fraught with constant and determined opposition, but it’s only through getting together and organizing that change can happen.

“The capitalists won’t give up, and we won’t either,” Bryant declared.

Watch the Unemployed Town Hall Forum on People’s World’s YouTube channel.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).