Labor's Voice for Change (26) April 14, 2009

The Unemployed Need a Union of Their Own;
They Can Become a Powerful Ally of Labor

By Harry Kelber

One of the worst effects of losing your job — in addition to the mental strain and anguish of struggling to survive without a regular paycheck — is the loss of self-respect and the sense you are no longer useful or wanted. There’s the daily pain of seeing people rushing off to work and the kids to school, while you sit at home, wondering what to do with yourself. You’ve tried to find work, written letters and filled out lots of applications for jobs that paid much less than what you earned, but you’ve found no takers. So what can you do, especially if you’re 40 or 50 years old?

Well, there are the unions. They talk a lot about helping working people. But the AFL-CIO and Change to Win are interested in organizing only workers who are employed and who will become regular dues-payers. They have no plan to help those working families who need their help the most, the unemployed. That’s not only immoral, it’s short-sighted.

It’s time for labor leaders to get smart and transform the unemployed into their most powerful political ally. The unions can lay the groundwork for building an eventual national union of the unemployed by sponsoring “jobs for all” committees in each community and inviting out-of-work people to join. At some point in their growth, these committees will elect officers, adopt agendas and function like any independent civic organization, but dedicated to the needs of poor people and the jobless, who have no strong defenders.

Pragmatic labor leaders should favor a union of the unemployed. Jobless workers have a lot more free time on their hands to become involved in union organizing and legislative campaigns. They’d be particularly valuable as a resource during elections, providing the manpower for various political tasks, including staffing phone banks, handing out leaflets and getting out the vote.

Organizing the unemployed is good public relations for unions. When hundreds of thousands of unorganized workers finally find jobs, they will be more likely to join a union if the labor movement gave them a helping hand in their hour of need.

Individually, jobless workers feel powerless and ignored, but when bonded in a union, they would have a voice that commanded public attention. Since the start of the recession in December 2007, the number of unemployed persons rose by 5.1 million. There were 13.2 million people out of work as of March 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s an enormous number of people, which, if organized into a union, can grow into a major political force, allied to the labor movement. That is what has been happening in many foreign countries.

The concept of a union of the unemployed is not new in the United States. During the Great Depression, there were two national organizations devoted to the poor, the homeless and the jobless: The Workers Alliance of America, under Socialist leadership, and the Communist-led Unemployment Councils of the United States. They fought local governments for home relief, stopped apartment evictions, held free speech demonstrations and marches that demanded unemployment insurance and public works jobs, and supported strikes that were on the increase in the early 1930s.

As we now witness, in times of economic crisis, the rich and the powerful, in Wall Street and elsewhere, are managing to take care of themselves, while our neediest citizens are last in line and still waiting for help..

Don’t the jobless deserve to have an organization of their own and shouldn’t the labor movement feel an obligation to help them build one?

Article 27 of “Labor’s Voice for Change” will be posted on Thursday, April 16, 2009.