As 2011 begins, nearly 15 million people are officially unemployed in the United States and another 11.5 million have either settled for part-time work or simply given up the search for a job. To regain the 5 percent unemployment level of December 2007, about 300,000 jobs would have to be created each month for several years. There are no signs that this is likely to happen soon. And joblessness now hits people harder because it follows in the wake of decades of stagnating worker earnings, high consumer indebtedness, eviscerated retirement funds and rollbacks of the social safety net.
So where are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs? After all, the injustice is apparent. Working people are losing their homes and their pensions while robber-baron CEOs report renewed profits and windfall bonuses. Shouldn’t the unemployed be on the march? Why aren’t they demanding enhanced safety net protections and big initiatives to generate jobs?
It is not that there are no policy solutions. Left academics may be pondering the end of the American empire and even the end of neoliberal capitalism, and—who knows—in the long run they may be right. But surely there is time before the darkness settles to try to relieve the misery created by the Great Recession with massive investments in public-service programs, and also to use the authority and resources of government to spur big new initiatives in infrastructure and green energy that might, in fact, ward off the darkness.
Nothing like this seems to be on the agenda. Instead the next Congress is going to be fixated on an Alice in Wonderland policy of deficit reduction by means of tax and spending cuts. As for the jobless, right-wing commentators and Congressional Republicans are reviving the old shibboleth that unemployment is caused by generous unemployment benefits that indulge poor work habits and irresponsibility. Meanwhile, in a gesture eerily reminiscent of the blatherings of a panicked Herbert Hoover, President Obama invites corporate executives to a meeting at Blair House to urge them to invest some of their growing cash reserves in economic growth and job creation, in the United States, one hopes, instead of China.
Mass protests might change the president’s posture if they succeeded in pressing him hard from his base, something that hasn’t happened so far in this administration. But there are obstructions to mobilizing the unemployed that would have to be overcome.
First, when people lose their jobs they are dispersed, no longer much connected to their fellow workers or their unions and not easily connected to the unemployed from other workplaces and occupations. By contrast workers and students have the advantage of a common institutional setting, shared grievances and a boss or administrator who personifies those grievances. In fact, despite some modest initiatives—the AFL-CIO’s Working America, which includes the unemployed among their ranks, or the International Association of Machinists’ Ur Union of Unemployed, known as UCubed—most unions do little for their unemployed, who after all no longer pay dues and are likely to be malcontents.
Because layoffs are occurring in all sectors and job grades, the unemployed are also very diverse. This problem of bringing people of different ethnicities or educational levels or races together is the classic organizing problem, and it can sometimes be solved by good organizers and smart tactics, as it repeatedly was in efforts to unionize the mass production industries. Note also that only recently the prisoners in at least seven different facilities in the Georgia state penitentiary system managed to stage coordinated protests using only the cellphones they’d bought from guards. So it remains to be seen whether websites such as 99ers .et or layofflist.org that have recently been initiated among the unemployed can also become the basis for collective action, as the Internet has in the global justice movement.