Organizing the Unemployed

Organizing the Unemployed

A replicable strategy for organizing the jobless on a mass scale has yet to emerge. The future may depend on finding one.

Waiting in line to file for unemployment benefits in Frankfort, Kentucky (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)

At the beginning of November, a million Americans filed new unemployment claims within a single week. Over 20 million were already receiving benefits. While the unemployment rate came down to 6.9 percent in October, that figure elides those who’ve dropped out of the labor force altogether. Indeed, many job losses considered “temporary” in the spring have been reclassified as “permanent.” At the time of writing, 13 million Americans stood to lose unemployment benefits they’d been receiving through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs the day after Christmas. For many households, these emergency programs were their last remaining sources of income; their expiration is devastating. As an unemployed Tennessee restaurant manager told the New York Times, “Without it, I’m dead in the water.”

These conditions have inspired an old refrain: “we must organize the unemployed!” It’s familiar to any leftist who has lived through multiple recessions. In such times, we tend to look back, nostalgically, to the Communist- and Socialist-led Unemployed Councils (UCs) of the 1930s. The scale and militancy of these movements—however brief their flourishing—make them an appealing touchstone for organizers reckoning with a comparable system-wide failure today. But in many ways the model is an awkward fit for our times. Depression-era unemployed organizing took place in a pre–welfare state environment; unemployment insurance (UI) itself was one of their key demands. The jobless today face degraded but still extant versions of social programs whose inauguration the UCs set in motion. Their legacy—our semi-functional UI system—and the extra benefits included in the CARES Act cushioned the American working class during the harshest months of 2020. (Indeed, overall poverty rates went down during the spring, thanks to stimulus provisions.)

And yet millions of families are now looking down the barrel of a winter without income, their lives pummeled by eviction, hunger, and despair, while another deadly coronavirus wave leads to more lockdowns. Mobilizing the unemployed to demand an adequate fiscal response from our desultory federal mandarins is imperative. Americans will be fighting for their lives no matter what; the question is whether they will be fighting together, in solidarity, and thus with a chance to win.

The end of the pandemic glimmers on the horizon. But there is no vaccine for a jobless economy. As Aaron Benanav recently argued in these pages (“A World Without Work?” Fall 2020), unemployment and under-employment will likely remain a structural feature of our economy long after the virus subsides. Decoupling economic survival from private-sector employment is not merely an emergency necessity, then, but the struggle of our lifetime. As of yet, no replicable strategy for organizing the jobless on a mass scale has emerged. The future may depend on finding one. While the history of America’s most powerful unemployed movement does not offer a blueprint, it’s a decent place to start.

 

Bringing Misery out of Hiding

At the onset of the Great Depression, Communists, Socialists, and followers of the minister-turned-Marxist A.J. Muste organized groups of unemployed workers to demand relief paid for by employers and the state. The UCs of the Communist Party (CP), which boasted the largest membership by far, have been memorialized on the left as a model of militancy, strategy, and radical leadership. (Precise membership figures are difficult to estimate, but hundreds of thousands passed through the party’s UCs.) Communist cadre organized the jobless by block and by tenement, meeting them in the breadlines, flophouses, and local relief centers where they congregated as the economic crisis worsened. On March 6, 1930, when Communists worldwide called for marches of the unemployed, the councils mobilized over a million jobless Americans to march on city halls and state capitols. “The communists brought misery out of hiding in the workers’ neighborhoods,” recalled labor radical and future CIO leader Len De Caux. “They paraded it with angry demands through the main streets.”

Through a combination of mass mobilization and local militancy, the UCs got results. In Chicago, a demonstration organized by Socialists and Communists tens of thousands strong was sufficiently fearsome to inspire city and state officials to borrow $6.3 million from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to meet the marchers’ demands. Justifying the concession, Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak said, “I say to the men who object to this public relief because it will add to the tax burden on their property, they should be glad to pay for it, for it is the best way of ensuring that they keep their property.”

In many cities, the UCs also acted as case managers for individual families, pressing their grievances with local relief agencies. But the councils didn’t merely advocate for relief from government; they engaged in militant anti-eviction actions, physically preventing sheriffs from evicting tenants, fighting with cops, and moving tenants’ furniture back into their homes when the police gave up. “By 1932, in some cities evictions had all but ended,” writes Michael Goldfield in The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s. Eviction defense had become so ubiquitous in Detroit by March 1931, reported Edmund Wilson, that a landlady called upon the local UC to inquire whether she was allowed to evict her tenants yet. (The Communists said no.) In the early 1930s, when an eviction notice arrived at the home of a Black family in Chicago, wrote sociologists St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton Jr., “it was not unusual for a mother to shout to the children, ‘Run quick and find the Reds!’”

The Midwest-based Musteites, who adorned themselves in patriotic symbols to attract native-born (or nativist) workers turned off by the Communists, claimed at least one extraordinary victory as well. The Muste-affiliated Lucas County Unemployed League mobilized tens of thousands of jobless workers in 1934 to support the Toledo Auto-Lite strike. The unemployed encircled the factory, refused to scab, and helped fight off the National Guard. Despite numerous efforts to break them, the emboldened strikers prevailed. The Toledo action points to one of the strongest arguments for workers to support organizing the unemployed: a large, desperate, and permanently jobless class puts downward pressure on wages and serves as a reserve army of strikebreakers.

Goldfield likens the unemployed movements of the 1930s to the anti-impressment riots of the colonial period, which—thanks to the British navy’s ecumenical approach to forced military service—involved “the poorest members of society, women, free Blacks, slaves, and bond servants, as well as artisans and professionals.” Unemployment, both today and during the Depression, affects a diverse swath of workers, across race, gender, and income. The CP’s commitment to racial egalitarianism positioned them well to organize UCs across the South, leading the party to generate some of the largest multiracial uprisings of the era. Though their work was often “invisible,” and they rarely held leadership positions, Goldfield observes, women were often “the driving forces, the shock troops for the most militant activities of the unemployed organizing.” The UCs facilitated the first wave of organized working-class unrest of the Depression, and they planted seeds for a decade of labor agitation and party-building.

 

If Not Now, When?

Writer and activist Bill Fletcher Jr. has agitated for the labor movement to organize unemployed workers in every economic crisis of his adult life. After the 2008 crash, he recalls meeting with a funder who told him it wasn’t the right time to dedicate resources to organizing the jobless. “If not now, when?” he responded. “Does unemployment have to reach 30 percent? 40? Should we wait until the recession is over? When?” Another post-2008 effort fell apart when his AFL-CIO partners reallocated resources to the 2010 midterms. The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) organized its own unemployed members in the 1980s—as a wave of offshoring devastated its ranks—but most unions, Fletcher has found, are loath to undertake major organizing efforts among workers who aren’t voting members.

Fletcher has been making a similar pitch to unions and foundations since the pandemic struck the United States, with limited success. Inspired by the UC model, Fletcher believes unemployed organizing must work on three levels: address basic issues of survival, mobilize direct action, and fight for jobs. “Survival includes everything from food, healthcare, and shelter to building mutual assistance networks, particularly in this time of plague,” Fletcher said. “Direct action is fighting evictions, fighting shutoffs, which we’re going to be seeing more of.” And then there’s the fight for jobs. “This is a matter directed at governments,” he said. “It’s hard to go to a particular corporation and say, ‘Give us more jobs.’ You can fight against lay-offs, but not for GM to give us more work.” In other words, unemployed worker organizations should ultimately demand job opportunities from the government—a job guarantee—with quality pay, benefits, and racial equity. (The slogan emblazoned on the banners of Communists marching in the early 1930s was “Work or Wages!”)

In fits and starts, Fletcher’s ideas have found purchase during the current crisis. Unemployed organizing has taken three main forms. First, tens of thousands of newly jobless Americans have flocked to relatively apolitical Facebook groups and Reddit forums to trade tips about navigating the UI system, vent frustration, and commiserate. Second, progressive nonprofits like the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) have been mobilizing unemployed members to put pressure on elected officials to extend and expand emergency benefits; CPD’s Unemployed Action network has held small protests outside legislators’ homes and offices across the country. (A newer group, ExtendPUA.org, was formed by out-of-work entertainment industry freelancers to push for extending benefits through the end of the pandemic.) And third, independent socialists and communists have organized on a smaller-scale—but with more explicit militancy—doing a mix of mutual aid, political education, and eviction defense.

Many of the latter groups, like the Portland-based Unemployed Workers Council, are inspired by the UCs of the 1930s; the group’s education team recently produced a zine recounting the CP’s Depression-era organizing. They haven’t had the success of their predecessors. The Portland group claims about twenty regularly participating members. One of them, Rory Gatto, had the perverse good fortune to be fired during a union organizing campaign at this warehouse job in February; he managed to apply for UI before the flood. Though their numbers are meager, Gatto explained, much of their work has been done in coalition with other groups focused on tenant organizing, anti-fascist mobilization, and racial justice protest.

None of these efforts, admirable as they may be, have cohered into a mass movement or captured the public imagination in a significant way—unlike, say, the libertarian anti-lockdown protests that featured in multiple news cycles in April. Social distancing constrains organizing of every sort, but unemployed organizing today faces other challenges. Many of the functions UCs served in the 1930s (case-by-case grievances, eviction defense, meal distribution) are now provided by depoliticized nonprofits, government agencies, and atomized grassroots groups. The Communists were a one-stop shop for agitation, political education, and relief—an ideological compression chamber where workers’ political impulses could grow and cohere; our bric-a-brac neoliberal welfare state diffuses those instincts across an array of private and public entities. Meanwhile, the hardest-hit unions have been focused on triaging their members’ immediate needs—and trying to help the Democrats take control of Washington—rather than envisioning a broader mass movement.

Even in their heyday, individual UCs tended to dissipate when enough members found work or relief, leaving only the Communist cadre behind. (Angela Moore, an out-of-work comedy promoter and member of Unemployed Action, told me, “Everyone wants [the UI system] to work when they need it, but no one wants to think about it once they don’t.”) As Goldfield puts it, unemployed organizing is “mercurial and ephemeral.” Without a stable container for organizing to ramp up and ramp down—like a party organization—whatever gets built in one moment disintegrates in the next.

Jonah Furman, a democratic socialist and former National Labor Organizer for Bernie Sanders 2020, supports pressuring Congress to extend relief, but he doubts whether organizing the unemployed as such is a worthy strategic objective for the left. “Can ‘unemployment,’ as a lived condition, be articulated into a class identity in the way that having a job can?” Furman asked. He doesn’t think so, not least because it’s a condition everyone hopes will be temporary.

In Furman’s view, strategic considerations are clouded by nostalgia for the CP, a moral instinct to “go to the margins, to the most vulnerable,” and a fantasy that the unemployed represent a mass constituency just waiting to be mobilized. “Why do Marxists care so much about the workplace? Because it’s a strategic site of vulnerability for capital,” Furman said. “Unemployment is the inverse. It’s the least strategic place to be in capitalism,” the least powerful place from which to fight back. The only thing it has going for it is numbers. “If you look at what the CP actually did,” said Furman, “it’s basically a mob with pitchforks. They’d march on a loan office, on a landlord, on an eviction, and people power their way through. Which is great, but it’s not the same thing as strategic leverage.”

 

System Collapse

Joblessness may not be a site of significant strategic power, but it has generated a set of shared experiences during this crisis that could form the basis for shared political action.

In March, Matisse Bruer was furloughed from her job as a technician for AMC movie theaters in South Florida, joining the ranks of 30 million Americans who lost their income as a result of COVID-19 in the first six weeks of lockdown. Her employer encouraged her to apply for UI immediately. “It was really annoying from the outset,” Bruer told me. “I had expected that the unemployment process would be, if not an easy process, then a quick one. Because when you lose your job, you immediately lose your income. But you still have your rent due, you still have everything due.” For Bruer, whose income supported her husband and two-year-old daughter, it wasn’t easy or quick. Nearly every day, she called the unemployment office, each time navigating what seemed like an entirely new and increasingly baroque phone tree. When she finally spoke to a human manager, he told her that her claim wasn’t in the system. “It had disappeared.”

Such Kafkaesque encounters with state bureaucracies—themselves threadbare and starved of resources by decades of austerity—have been a hallmark of the COVID crisis. State-level UI systems vary in their generosity, but none were sufficiently robust to handle the onslaught of claims in March and April. Nonprofits, legal aid agencies, and ad-hoc hotlines created by unions like UNITE HERE—which saw 98 percent of its membership laid off at the beginning of the crisis—have attempted to pick up the slack. When the lockdowns started, Ted Kelly, an organizer with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, set his office phone to forward to his cell. Quickly, he was inundated by hundreds of calls from desperate Philadelphians trapped in UI purgatory. At one point, a series of claimants told Kelly they had received his number from someone at Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s office. “People were calling the governor to demand help, and they were giving out my cell,” Kelly told me.

“We’re seeing people have a really direct experience with system collapse,” said Michelle Miller of Coworker.org. Miller, a veteran of the Service Employees International Union, cofounded Coworker to provide an online organizing space for workers separated by geographic distance and the enforced atomization of the gig economy. “Often when we talk about systems not working, it’s abstract and conceptual,” Miller said. People might be able to feel the effects of “financialization,” but “they can’t really touch it and see it.” This crisis is different. In March, the government shut down the economy on purpose. Though the UI system is designed to foster shame and humiliation—Bruer, for example, often wonders whether her unemployment nightmare is somehow her fault—it’s harder than ever to make the case that the jobless are to blame for their suffering. And absent unforeseen intervention, more suffering is on its way.

In their seminal book Poor People’s Movements, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward refer to the “partial transvaluation” that can occur when unemployment is sufficiently “severe and widespread.” Under such conditions, the stigma of joblessness, and of receiving welfare, may weaken because “the extent of distress belies the customary conviction that one’s economic fortunes and misfortunes are a matter of personal responsibility, of individual failure.” In our moment, that transvaluation may be even more profound. The unemployed are being punished for doing exactly what they were asked to do as a matter of public health and civic obligation: stop going to work. The moral mythology of poverty, one of the key ideological engines of American capitalism, has stalled out.

“In America, we have this attachment to a narrative that doesn’t exist,” Bruer told me. “The idea that you can work hard and work your way up.” No amount of hard work, Bruer now believes, would guarantee an escape from the cycle of debt and precarity into which her family has been plunged. Such disillusionment, Miller believes, is being felt across the economy. The crisis has generated a mass of jobless and underemployed workers unconvinced by the myths that normally insulate the American economy.

Contra Furman, Miller sees an opportunity precisely because the present crisis has forced a decoupling of the provision of basic needs and the obligation to work. In nascent forms, she has observed this consciousness emerging in an unlikely place: the supposedly depoliticized and nonpartisan Reddit and Facebook groups where the jobless convene to voice their desperation and their anger at a system that simply doesn’t work for them—that doesn’t care. “We don’t just have employer-based healthcare,” Miller said, “we have employer-based economic survival in every way.” People in the forums are beginning to express dissatisfaction with such conditions, if not in explicitly political terms. As a man in Michigan posted on r/Unemployment in August, “Feels like they are just waiting for us to die or kill ourselves off. I truly feel abandoned by this country.”

The nascent class consciousness in these spaces does not mean an uprising is imminent. Collective commiseration is not the same as organizing or agitation; indeed, it can serve a cross-purpose—defusing outrage into group therapy, dejection into nihilism and sloth. But as leftists cast about for language and a vehicle for articulating the inchoate anger of the moment, we might start by listening to the conversations the unemployed are already having and meeting them in the spaces they already inhabit.

Meanwhile, the only movement that has managed to draw millions of Americans into the streets during this plague year—to risk health and break lockdown rules and curfews in pursuit of justice—was Black Lives Matter (BLM). Many have suggested the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death were inflected and fueled by the economic devastation and social stasis wrought by COVID-19. Bruer, the out-of-work film technician, found solace and a sense of community not on Facebook, but in the streets. Among those thousands of people suffering the same “financial stress, future-related stress, current-related stress, uncertainty about their health, about their lives, about their well-being,” Bruer finally felt a shred of hope. It was a cold and hard-won hope: that people will only put up with so much pain. “It’s the same bullshit as before,” she said. “We all got locked down, but the police couldn’t even take a break from killing people.”

The forms of organizing suitable to this moment may not arise from the left’s glorious past, but from the specific conditions of our present, in which many Americans experience the state in fraught and contradictory terms—as an institution that has the capacity to keep you alive or else to kill you. These stark biopolitics informed the BLM struggle this summer, even if economics were not the primary focus. The pandemic has cultivated our sense of frailty and interdependence while the lockdowns preclude the forms of communality that best assuage loneliness and want. “Part of what we’re learning in the pandemic is that human beings need physical contact with other human beings,” said Fletcher, who insists jobless people need places to convene if they are to cultivate solidarity. That won’t become easier as temperatures drop and infection rates rise. But BLM showed us that Americans are still willing to take extraordinary risks together in pursuit of justice.

There is still an appetite for mass mobilization in this country. But dire economic conditions alone are not enough to spur a movement. Can we suture immiseration, commiseration, and collective action? Can an eviction incite an uprising? At the very least, we can shine a light on the violent dimensions of neoliberalism—its indifference to hardship and hunger—as BLM has illuminated the violence of its repressive agents. To survive the cold winters and hot summers ahead, we must bring misery out of hiding again.


Sam Adler-Bell is a freelance writer in New York. He co-hosts the Dissent podcast Know Your Enemy.


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