Economy

White-Collar Workers Unite!

Barbara Ehrenreich's new organization seeks better health care, insurance and debt relief for unemployed and underemployed professionals.
Were you recently laid off from what should have been a cushy office job? Did you mistakenly think your college education would guarantee a decent financial future? Do you pass the twilight hours looking for new ways to say “database skills” on your Monster.com resume, only to wake up in a pool of instant coffee and crumpled rejection letters? Barbara Ehrenreich wants you to know that you are not alone!

Which is why on Sept. 15, she launched United Professionals, a nonprofit networking agency for “unemployed, underemployed, and anxiously employed” white-collar workers. Which encompasses pretty much anyone in America’s distressed middle class, but specifically hopes to draw from two major groups: “One,” says Ehrenreich, “is the 20-somethings who come out of college with an average of $20,000 in debt and are stuck in low-wage jobs. And this is not what they expected with a college degree. The other group is people in their late 40s and beyond who find that they are suddenly judged as too old to be in the work force.”

The idea for the organization grew out of the research for her latest book, "Bait and Switch." Ehrenreich, intending to covertly enter and expose the degrading and volatile world of corporate employment, spent nearly a year searching for a job through websites, networking events, career coaches, only to discover it was worse than she thought. Even with a jazzed PR resume and phenomenal writing skills -- she was recently asked to fill in for New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman -- Ehrenreich couldn’t land a cubicle.

Moreover, the ‘networking’ events she attended -- events that were supposed to provide depressed and disengaged employment-seekers with a rare opportunity for community -- often ended up being fronts for expensive career classes and sometimes even Christian evangelism. “People in this situation really want to come together, but when they do so often it ends up being some sort of very exploitative or useless situation,” she says.
When workers started turning up en masse at her "Bait and Switch" book tour events to share their stories, an idea was born.

“I would say, ‘Well, here we all are,” recounts Ehrenreich. “‘Is there someone here who would like to collect email addresses with the view to eventually doing something?’” So I had these contacts then in a number of cities, and then they had each collected email addresses, and it was out of that the initial group formed.”

She approached her friend Mike Dolan at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for advice, asking him, “What kind of an organization would work for these people? And no, it’s not a union, because we’re talking about many occupations and places. People who are unemployed as well as employed.”

The result was some seed money from the SEIU and a plan to build a grassroots, membership-based organization with local chapters, modeled vaguely on the AARP. In addition to Mike Dolan of the SEIU, a number of business and policy people have joined the UP board as members and advisors, including Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute and author and Demos director Tamara Draut. At $36.50 a year for members, UP hopes to be self-funding.

UP has three immediate goals: universal health care, recreating unemployment insurance -- for which “currently only about a third of laid-off people even qualify” -- and alleviating debt through a fairness in lending campaign. Though it does not plan on becoming a health coverage provider, UP is currently developing a plan to offer affordable service through a similar system as the Freelancer’s Union, which has managed to score group rates for self-employed workers living in New York.

In the long term, Ehrenreich and UP hope to tackle the greater issue of corporate oversight and accountability, “so that they can’t just lay off people or suspend pension and health benefits without some kind of review, some kind of public process,” Ehrenreich says. The trouble, of course, is finding an effective mechanism, which in UP’s case is envisioned as a sort of organic, from-the-ground-up civil rights movement:

“My model here is always the women’s movement in the 1970s, when there really was a lot of shame connected with having been raped or sexually abused in any way. And we had to come together for women to say, ‘Ah, that happened to me, too.’ And to begin to understand they didn’t cause it. There is a certain parallel where the unemployed are made to feel ashamed because of injuries inflicted on them. And the only way to get past shame is to come together and you know, reinforce each other.”

Hence the greater mission of UP, which does not seek to merely prop up an economic system that they think fails to adequately reward white- and blue-collar workers, but to form a voting bloc, or at least a coalition of interests. “It’s not just a matter for the poor, the chronically poor,” Ehrenreich explains. “The insecurity and instability of the middle class is part of the picture and we want those middle-class people to see that things like universal health insurance and a better safety net are in their immediate self-interest. I think we can build a majority movement for economic justice in this country."

Lofty ambitions, surely, but they seem to be resonating with a number of people. Two weeks after launch of the organization’s website, over a hundred people had volunteered to start local chapters in their towns.

“It’s a beginning, an experiment,” says Ehrenreich. “We’ll see what happens.”
Rina Palta is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
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