Labor's Voice for Change (49) July 2, 2009

Where Are the Jobs That Obama Promised?
Why No Action on the Increase in Layoffs?

By Harry Kelber

The Obama administration has taken the position that there will be no bailout for the 13.2 million people who are currently unemployed, and although layoffs will continue to grow even after the recession is over, the victims shouldn’t expect much assistance from the White House, which is occupied with weightier problems, like health care and energy legislation and a plateful of foreign policy issues.

What advice does the Obama team have for the 2.3 million workers who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more? Would they say: “Times are tough, but don’t despair. The economy is going to pick up and there will be plenty of jobs available. In the meantime, do the best you can, and know that our hearts are with you.”

Obama is a smart and talented organizer. He has shown that he knows how to delegate responsibilities by the number of subordinate divisions and positions he has created. So why not put a “czar” in charge of public works projects, as the New Deal did during the Great Depression? If that individual was accessible to the construction unions and the general public, we would have a better idea of the program’s progress and problems, and Congress could make whatever adjustments were necessary.

And why not set up a Division on Layoffs to investigate complaints that layoffs were unwarranted or that other solutions were available? The mere existence of such an agency would encourage profitable companies to think twice before announcing a mass layoff.

Workers Don’t Protest or Organize over Layoffs

It is amazing that workers respond so meekly when a boss abruptly strips them of their livelihood, even though they may have been working at the factory or office for maybe ten, twenty or more years. Unlike the situation in European and Asian countries, where workers fight tenaciously against layoffs, it is rare for American workers to display their anger by a sit-down, a strike, or some other act of rebellion. Employers may feel encouraged to increase the size of their mass layoffs, knowing that the workers will pick up their belongings and depart in a non-violent manner.

Since most layoffs take place in an orderly manner, the events, if they are reported at all, consist of short items in the business pages. Stories about unemployment and layoffs are avoided because they make for dull reading, despite the pain and misery that jobless workers endure.

The AFL-CIO and Change-to-Win are particularly guilty of ignoring jobless workers, without mentioning them for weeks, as they and their affiliated unions focus, almost exclusively, on two issues: the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and the national debate over health insurance The rare mention of layoffs on the websites of he two rival federations leaves the strong impression that the epidemic of layoffs is not their problem, even when their own members are involved.

Correction and Apology

In Article (48), I failed to mention Pride at Work as one of the AFL-CIO’s constituencies, whose members are eligible as candidates for the 15 seats on the Executive Council that have been set aside for women and “people of color.” We regret the omission and are sending the organization a copy of that article.

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As a candidate for the AFL-CIO Executive Council, I shall propose we establish friendly relations with the unemployed. It is short-sighted, as well as inhumane, to ignore these workers, as the Sweeney-Trumka team has done over the years. When these workers finally get jobs, we want them to remember that we were their friends and allies in their hour of need; they will then be more disposed to join unions. And they can become a powerful ally in our political campaigns.—Harry Kelber

Article 50 of “Labor’s Voice for Change”: will be posted on Tuesday, July 7.