In June 2012, speaking at a  fundraiser in Iowa, Vice President Joe Biden  said that “when the guy in Dunmore’s out of work, it’s an economic slowdown. When  your brother-in-law’s out of work, it’s a recession. When you’re out of work,  it’s a depression.It’s a  depression for millions and millions of people.”

In a political system that‘s built on  smoke, mirrors and spin, this is a refreshing  metaphor. Four years into the Great Recession, more than 23 million  workers remain locked out of the U.S. economy. The unemployed are a  talking point for politicians, but the real plight of the jobless is  ignored.

  • The economy added only 69,000 jobs in  May and 80,000 in June. Job creation has been sluggish, to say the  least, in past months, creating fears of another  downturn.
  • There have been 40 straight months with  the official government unemployment rate over 8  percent.
  • 12.7 million workers are counted as  unemployed.
  • 8.1 million work part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time jobs.
  • 2.4 million workers are described as “marginally attached to the labor  force.” This refers to “discouraged” workers, and others, who are not counted  because they are not actively looking for work.
  • The number of long-term  unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks and over) rose from 5.1 million to 5.4 million in  May. These individuals accounted for 42.8 percent of the  unemployed.
  • There were 63,000 foreclosures in May 2012.
  • Foreclosures averaged 2,440 each  day since May 2011.
  • There are approximately 3.5  million homeless, up from 2.5 million in  2007.

What will it take to address this jobs and housing  emergency? Putting millions of workers back to work will require immediate  action to create a public works jobs program comparable to the Works Progress  Administration (WPA) of the 1930s.

There is no shortage of socially  necessary jobs. Infrastructure is crumbling, energy systems need conversion to  renewable sources, our education system needs reinforcement, and millions of  people are without health care.

The fight for living-wage jobs and the  preservation of the social safety net will only be won through large-scale  organizing of the unemployed and underemployed. This organizing should have as its goal mass action to win immediate  and long-term relief.

A number of unions and workers’ centers  have been developing a variety of programs to organize the unemployed, or at  least fight for relief on their behalf. Examples include the Machinists Union  which launched a website (UR Union of the Unemployed ─ U Cubed) in 2010 designed  to establish communication links among unemployed workers in the same geographic  area for their mutual aid and support, and to pressure legislators for action on  key issues of concern; Working  America, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, seeks to promote networking among the  unemployed through its website Unemployment Lifeline; the Unemployed Action  Center in Chicago has been holding monthly rallies coinciding with the Labor  Department’s job report to underscore the plight of the unemployed; and  the New Jersey State Industrial Union  Council now has a category of individual membership, which will help organize  the unemployed. In addition, Jobs with  Justice in a number of cities has been experimenting with different programs to  organize the unemployed. While all of these efforts are certainly commendable,  it is clear that we are still at the beginning of the process of uniting the  unemployed into a powerful movement able to win significant victories in the  struggle to put America back to  work.

What is urgently needed is  for the organized labor movement to throw all of its weight into organizing the  unemployed, with committees, coalitions, and councils controlled by the unemployed themselves,  independent of political parties. This requires real grassroots organizing in  the neighborhoods and towns where workers live.

During the Great Depression, programs  like Social Security, unemployment compensation, the WPA and other forms of  relief for the unemployed were won through mass struggles organized by  Unemployed Councils and other organizations of the jobless. None of these social  gains were handed to workers by benevolent bosses or  politicians.

[Note: While the WPA was a real inspiration and in  some respects a model for the future in providing jobs, the actual number it did  provide was far less than what had been promised. In fact, it never employed  more than 25% of the unemployed. Moreover, its budget was cut, leading to work  stoppages and demonstrations at WPA sites protesting layoffs and demanding  decent wages.]

Lessons from  History

The National Unemployed Councils were  founded on July 4, 1930, and organized local Councils in cities and towns across  the U.S. These Unemployed Councils  organized mass actions demanding jobs, unemployment insurance, food, and  housing. The Councils also resisted foreclosures through direct action.

For example, in March 1933 hundreds of Rankin, Pennsylvania Unemployed Council members jammed  the home of an unemployed man and his invalid daughter to stop a planned  sheriff’s sale of his furniture. The crowd halted any bidding on the goods by  the speculators. When a policeman tried to clear the way for the bidders, the  crowd took his gun and blackjack, bought all the furniture for a total of 24¢, and returned it to its owner.

In a dramatic action in Trenton, New  Jersey, in April 1936 lasting eight days, the unemployed  occupied the State House and held a mock session of the Legislature, passing  laws and putting a smug political class on the spot.

The chief function this “Army of  Unoccupation” ─ as the unemployed called themselves ─ fulfilled at Trenton was an educational  one. It brought before the general public of the state and nation the true  conditions of the unemployed. It made clear to them that the unemployed workers  were not as well off and not as well taken care of as they had been led to believe.

Organizations of the  unemployed also played a key role in the union organizing drives of the 1930s,  pledging not to scab on strikes and, in some locales, actively picketing in  solidarity with strikers.

Which Way  Forward?

The unions must make low-wage and  unemployed workers a part of the organized working class. Union halls should be open to mass meetings of the  unemployed and unions’ resources should be made available to help unemployed  organizations get off the ground, with programs demanding good- paying jobs with  benefits. This is a practical question for labor. The  unemployed and low- wage, part-time workers are victims of the current economic crisis, but are also fed a diet of  anti-union propaganda. By organizing these workers, labor would be reinforcing a  vulnerable economic and political flank. As this crisis worsens, the right-wing can exploit the politics of resentment to  mobilize the unemployed as a battering ram to break the organizations of the  working class. This is a real danger if the unemployed are left unorganized and if the struggles they wage do not receive labor’s all-out  support.

We should also be clear that the  austerity drive is a bipartisan affair.  The Republicans would privatize, severely undermine, or obliterate every social  program in sight. President Obama and the Democrats  have been willing accomplices in both budget slashing and the erosion of labor  rights. Democratic governors in California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon, and other states have taken steps to  cut public employees’ pensions and benefits. Democrats and Republicans have  agreed on cutting funds for food stamps, the only difference being by how much.  And when school authorities in Rhode Island fired all of the teachers and staff  at Central Falls High School because they rejected a “turnabout” plan that would  have involved major concessions, President Obama applauded the authorities’  decision, saying the school board was “showing courage and doing the right thing  for kids.”

In spite of this bipartisan assault,  the unions continue to provide the Democrats with money and resources. It’s time  for organized labor to break with the twin parties of Wall Street and build a  party of our own ─ a labor party based on the unions. A labor party would be an  essential instrument for the defense of our interests as working people and  provide a political alternative to austerity and big business dominated  politics.

In the past couple of years, we have  seen the beginnings of a fightback sparked by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s  union-busting assault on the state’s  public employee unions. Occupy Wall Street has spread  to cities and towns across the country as people resist cutbacks and demand  accountability for financial elites. A crucial alliance between Occupy and labor  won a partial victory at Longview, Washington, and in the process shut down ports  on the West Coast. Organized labor should build on this alliance by mobilizing  as many people as possible around some basic demands, such  as:

1.      For a public works jobs program to create millions of jobs at living  wages.

2.      For Immediately doubling the minimum wage.

3.      For ending foreclosures now and creating a program to help families stay  in their homes.

4.      For preserving and protecting Social Security, Unemployment Compensation,  Medicare, Medicaid, and other vitally needed social  programs.

5.      For fully funding food stamps and other basic nutrition  programs.

6.      For a single-payer national health care  system.

7.       For taxing  the richest 1%! They created this crisis, make them pay for it!

Organizing to stop foreclosures,  preserve and extend unemployment insurance, and placing the demand for full-time  living-wage jobs on the top of the  nation’s agenda will shift political discourse in  favor of the embattled house of labor. Through both mass struggle and  independent labor political action, working people will learn their potential  power in society and become the activists energizing the union movement of the  future.

Issued  by the Emergency Labor Network (ELN)

For  more information write or P.O. Box 21004, Cleveland, OH44121 or call 216-736-4715 or visit our website at Donations gratefully accepted. Please make checks payable to the ELN  and mail to the above P.O. Box.

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