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13 Million Unemployed; Why Aren't They a Political Force to be Reckoned With?

Unions are still grappling with how to organize the unemployed, including their own ex-members, into a political force.

Wrenching testimonies from laid-off workers are overflowing the internet, crying out from the pages of policy reports, and popping up in commercial media. But unions are still grappling with how to organize the unemployed, including their own ex-members, into a political force.

Department of Labor figures for December showed 13.1 million unemployed and actively looking for work, almost half of them for more than six months. Another 8.1 million were working part-time involuntarily, and 2.5 million were too discouraged to look for work.

Unfortunately, unions don’t do a good job of organizing this vast pool, said Tom Lewandowski, who spent nine years on layoff from GE starting in 1975.

Now, as president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council in Fort Wayne, he’s leading an effort to survey unemployed workers, watchdog the county’s economic development, and demand accountability from the unemployment office for laid-off workers struggling to navigate the system.

No Shame

Jobs with Justice chapters have been experimenting with organizing the unemployed, but at a recent conference activists expressed frustration. The model of “unemployed” as an identity group (like race or sex) hasn’t worked, many said.

“How do you organize the unemployed when people don’t want to identify themselves as unemployed?” asked Susan Hurley, executive director of JwJ in Chicago.

Hurley said she tries to communicate that there’s no shame. “These are structural problems in our economy, it’s not about personal failings of anyone who’s out of work right now—14 million people can’t be wrong,” she says. The group has set up an Unemployed Action Center, open one day a week with computer resources, action-planning meetings, and free lunches.

“The isolation and shame is really tough,” said laid-off Chicago electrician Carole Ramsden. “Especially union members, you have a lot of pride of working at your job, and all of a sudden you lose that.” When she was laid off three years ago, 2,000 members of her local were ahead of her on the list waiting for work.

Some unions have reacted with help for laid-off members. The Transport Workers in New York City voted to pay $5 in extra dues for six months to maintain health insurance for unemployed members. Many of them are now back at work.

A Sheet Metal Workers local in Philadelphia voted several extensions for supplements to unemployment benefits for their members, and in April they voted overwhelmingly to divert an additional 50 cents per hour worked from their welfare fund to support those who’ve run out of unemployment benefits.

Staying Connected

In construction trades like sheet metal, unemployed workers are still dues-paying members and can retain a connection with their union, attending meetings and brushing up their skills with training programs.

But other laid-off union members are harder to track.

The Chicago Federation of Labor has given Jobs with Justice lists of members from plants with mass layoffs, Ramsden said.

Latoya Egwuekwe of the Machinists said 35,000 IAM members had been laid off nationwide by January 2010. In response, the union set up Ur Union of the Unemployed (U Cubed), a website designed to connect the unemployed to each other. Fourteen months later, 4,000 had signed up.

The idea was to have unemployed folks get together in person, but the result so far has been largely to generate advocacy emails to politicians.

The AFL-CIO’s community affiliate Working America set up a similar networking site in 2009, Unemployment Lifeline, and on Labor Day last year launched “America Wants to Work” to lobby for the Obama administration’s jobs bill.

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