On May 8, the day the U.S. Labor Department announced that 535,000 Americans had lost their jobs last month, Wall Street greeted the news that unemployment was growing at a slower pace (666,000 in March) as a sign that the recession was beginning to “bottom out.” Investors responded to the optimistic message by sending stock prices soaring 168 points that day.
While the unemployment rate jumped from 8.5 percent to 8.9 percent, the highest rate in 25 years, many business economists were cheerfully predicting a slow but steady movement toward economic recovery, disregarding concern for the suffering of millions of people out of work.
Said Michael Darda, a chief economist at MKM Partners: “It’s going to take some time for this economy to get back on its feet, but we might be closer to the recession ending.” And Ethan Harris, a chief economic researcher at Barclays Capital: “It’s a confirmation that we’re in the early stages of a turn. We’re getting further removed from the confidence shock of last fall.”
In human terms, the overall figures on unemployment are appalling. Since December 2007, 5.7 million jobs have disappeared, These figures do not include the 8.9 million people who are employed part time because their working hours have been cut or they have been unable to find full-time jobs, The total number of unemployed people is 13.7 million, as of April 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of long-time unemployed (those who have been jobless for 27 weeks or more) increased by 498,000 in April to 2,7 million. These individuals urgently need help from the government. But there is no evidence that their acute condition is getting any special attention.
Most economists agree that the nation’s businesses will cut another two million jobs before the recession disappears, and they will be in no hurry to rehire former employees. So why is the Obama administration not showing the same concern for the millions of workers who have lost their jobs that it has displayed toward Wall Street investors and the big banks?
The government gave them hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout money to nurse them back to health and promised them even more money if needed. Why can’t jobless working people get the same treatment?
Why Isn’t Labor Speaking Up in Behalf of the Unemployed?
In the current economic crisis, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win have done almost nothing to take a public stand on behalf of the millions of laid off workers. Posting sympathetic statements on their web sites about people who have been laid off is hardly enough. Labor leaders should be actively involved in monitoring the $787 billion stimulus package so that a high priority is given to creating new jobs and increasing badly needed infrastructure projects.
Unions have to find ways to show the jobless they really care about their plight. They can help destitute families with food and other necessities, the way they do in long strike situations. They can conduct information picketing about the layoffs. Activists can think of other ways to demonstrate labor’s presence during the economic crisis.
The two labor federations should set up a joint Department of Employment to collect information about the progress being made to end the recession, and to communicate this knowledge to union members via the Internet. Where a company institutes mass layoffs, unions should intervene and ask management to justify the layoffs or suggest alternatives.
State Federation and Central Labor Council should check their communities to see whether they have an adequate “safety net:" to provide assistance to the neediest families.