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Sticking together in tough times

Unemployment, photo by Mike Licht
Photo by Mike Licht

In unemployed worker groups and common security clubs across the country, participants are facing two grim realities. The first is that jobs that vanished aren’t coming back. And the second reality is that if unemployed workers don’t stand up for themselves, no one else will.

“One thing is clear: Whether somebody has problems with foreclosure, or no food, or trying to get some training—workers don’t have any power,” said Tom Lewandowski, leader of an Indiana group organizing the unemployed. “So all this is about building power and it can only happen collectively.”

In northern Indiana, Lewandowski and other workers formed the Unemployed and Anxiously Unemployed Workers Initiative. In March, they successfully mobilized against legislation proposed in Indiana that would have cut unemployment benefits and eligibility.

“We had thousands of people go to lobby in Indianapolis and they completely revamped the legislation,” said Lewandowski. “Our folks saw that through collective action they could initiate something.”

In the last two years, as a result of the economic meltdown, over eight million jobs were eliminated. Corporate profits and CEO pay have bounced back at the biggest companies, but that isn’t translating into new jobs. In fact, many companies are pursuing a strategy of increasing productivity while shedding workers at a shocking pace.

As Stephen Pearlstein wrote recently in The Washington Post, “Companies have found ways to produce as much as they ever did, but with fewer workers. As a result, over the past year, output for each hour worked rose more than six percent, even as average hourly earnings have risen less than two percent. The rest of those productivity gains have gone straight to the bottom line, creating a record stash of cash on corporate balance sheets.”

A growing number of workers are facing the prospects of long-term unemployment and need to rethink how they’re going to survive.

As Don Peck wrote in The Atlantic, “The Great Recession may be over, but this era of high joblessness is probably just beginning. Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men.”

For people among the ranks of the unemployed, underemployed, and those who love them, we need new strategies to face the changes.

One approach has been to form unemployment groups and common security clubs for the purpose of overcoming isolation, providing mutual aid, and taking action together to work for policies that increase economic security and create the jobs of the future.

Breaking out of the isolation that often accompanies unemployment is the first step.

“The jobless in the United States lose far more than their paychecks; they also lose precious social support,” wrote sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the Los Angeles Times in an article about common security clubs that serve as a lifeline for the unemployed. “Research has found that the health of those who lose jobs is likely to decline and the risk of dying rises. Many not only lose daily contact with factory and office friends, they also retreat from other social interaction.”

In northern Indiana, the Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers Initiative is a great example of folks organizing together.

“Part of our work is to help face the unemployment bureaucracy so people get their benefits,” said Lewandowski. They invite people leaving unemployment offices to join the group. Members volunteer at libraries on Sunday afternoons to help unemployed workers file claims online.

The Initiative meets weekly and is currently forming committees to help educate people about such topics as computer use, unemployment insurance, stress management in tough times, and green job opportunities. They invite anyone who has gotten a pink slip or anticipates one to join their organizing effort.

As with common security clubs, there is tremendous value for people facing economic insecurity to organize with others and help each other with food, rides, job networking, and other forms of survival. But it is also essential that workers stand together to defend unemployment services and benefits in the current political environment.

While some think the Great Recession is passing, there is a danger that politicians and the public will forget that millions of people are struggling to survive. Recently, conservatives in Congress blocked the extension of unemployment benefits for a month, arguing they are too expensive and provide a disincentive for people to work. While this is clearly a myth, it indicates that the unemployed may be used as a political football in federal budget politics.

With five job applicants for every one job opening, the only response is to get organized.  Common security clubs and other grassroots organizers pressed for extension of unemployment benefits during June and July. On July 22, Congress finally voted to extend unemployment insurance for 2.5 million Americans whose benefits had lapsed.

Common security clubs are helpful both in providing mutual aid for survival, but also for people to have a “home base” to lobby for changes.

There are systemic changes happening in the economy. Because of the depth of our economic and ecological challenges, it is not possible to return to a model of economic growth based on cheap energy and unlimited fossil fuels. Nor do we want to revert to an economy built on huge amounts of consumer debt—or an economy that transfers huge amounts of wealth to a few and puts the economic security of everyone else at risk.

One thing we know for certain: None of us can figure this out alone.


Chuck Collins auth picChuck Collins wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Chuck is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good.

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