Union of the Unemployed — what organizing looks like

I’ve been unemployed since July 2008.  My tech job was outsourced to the Philippines.  The week before that, my wife had been forced out of her job in retaliation for having reported sexual harassment at one of Wall Street’s leading regulatory agencies.  I was intrigued when she showed me an article on AlterNet telling about a newly formed Union of the Unemployed formed by the IAM.  I joined online.

Then I set out trying to figure out what I had gotten myself into.  The union is organized into 6-person Cubes.  One could communicate to everyone within a Cube, but all other communication had to be done one-by-one from the membership links.  As for what the union was fighting for, the emphasis was on excoriating Jim Bunning for holding up unemployment extensions (which Democratic Party dallying made possible).  While there were references to IAM press releases supporting jobs creation, the actual agenda was to support the bill whose heart was giving tax breaks to small businesses so as to encourage them to create jobs (the lowest paying jobs).  There was no link for contacting the union.

Sez me to myself, “This is not good.”  If members can’t talk to each other easily, if the union is supporting bullshit, what is to be done?  Well, I had just gotten onto Facebook a couple weeks earlier, so the little cartoon light bulb  goes off over my head CLICK!  So I created a Facebook group called the Union of the Unemployed Thinktank.  Then came the fun part (grrrr).

Over the course of several days, I sent the following invitation:

I have called on the union, “How about DEMANDING that the government not just ENCOURAGE jobs, but actually CREATE them. Prosperity is not just around the corner, our national infrastructure is falling apart, and they don’t have jobs? That’s obscene.”  We can do more than go after a stooge like Jim Bunning.

There is now a Facebook group called Union of the Unemployed Thinktank, where we can discuss what is to be done as a group.  http://www.facebook.com/group….

If you want to work out how to further mobilize our strength, please join.

One-by-one.  Over 1,500 invites.  Once I was in sending mode, I watched the Thinktank numbers grow like the temperature on a thermometer.  (Finally peaking at 173 as of this minute.)

The Thinktank started getting responses from its members.  From overthrow the system and reform the monetary system to individual pleas for jobs.

I wrote the members:

I offer no easy solutions. I can’t get you a job. I can’t even get myself a job. But I can try to facilitate us coming up with a few ideas to pursue. I have been getting to know some of you, I’d like to get to know you all better. From looking at what people have been posting, it seems like there are roughly 3 levels of concern:

(1) We can’t get a job and we’re getting depressed and/or desperate.

(2) We need to directly address the crisis of unemployment in general in the U.S.

(3) We need to addresses the causes of unemployment — Wall Street greed and bipartisan political corruption — on the political front.

Some of us may find one particular point rings a bell. Some of us may relate to all three. Although membership is open, at this point, the main thing we have in common is that we are members of the IAM’s Union of the Unemployed. We are here because we have some concern that the union’s Cube structure limits our ability to communicate with each other, and that the IAM is setting the union’s priorities without our input. Personally, I am grateful that the IAM has created this union, but I share the misgivings stated above.

[I state the union’s lack of a clear demand for job creation.]

So what is our stance towards the IAM? We can:

(1) simply operate independently of the IAM as a new organization of the unemployed.

(2) function as an independent body, relate to other organizations and the media as a caucus of the IAM union, and relate to the IAM at its top level.

(3) organize within the CUBE structure to apply pressure from the bottom up.

I am inclined to (2) and (3), but that is for us all to discuss. I think it is important, to the extent we are individually able, to invite others to join the Union. Its strength is part of our strength. While the union is still growing, the pace has slowed down, a little over 1,500 members as I write. Larger membership makes us stronger.

The issue of jobs is center-stage. The system often gives the impression of being an unfeeling, all-powerful monolith. Yet I believe it is exceedingly fragile and sensitive. The New York Times — not known for its love of the poor — has been pumping out a steady stream of articles on the devastation this Great Recession has been wreaking on the American people. Consider that, however grudgingly, Congress keeps extending benefits with significant Republican support. It seems the ruling consensus is to maintain business as usual, no structural change (do not create jobs directly) while paying us off with unemployment benefits. Paying us badly, to be sure, but a payoff is a payoff. They seem truly terrified of massive numbers of newly homeless unemployed roaming the streets doing lord knows what.

We are the new poster children. Democrats use us to beat the Republicans over the head (they loved the Jim Bunning show). And the Republicans use us to show that Obama’s stimulus program isn’t working — which indeed it isn’t.

There are roughly 120 of us scattered all over the country. But some of us know groups of other unemployed folks. We can try to push the IAM Union there. There are other organizations we could connect with. Why should they listen to us? Because we are members of the IAM’s Goddamn Union Of The Unemployed! It conveys “standing.” Being a union has different meaning than being a coalition or do-gooder group. We can use this.

So let’s do some thinking!

More responses from the members.  They had little to say about the union, but there emerged a steady patter of calls for a march on Washington, links to other coalitions, other marches.

I got a response from Rick Sloan, acting executive director of the union, which said in part:

I appreciate your enthusiasm. If you carefully examine the entire UCubed site you will find constructive ideas put forward to end this Grave Recession. And I am certainly open to hearing your own ideas.

But just complaining about the UCubed petition/letter to Bunning isn’t very useful. Senator Bunning put millions of jobless Americans at risk. And his reckless approach is simply unacceptable.

If you really want to help end this Grave Recession, get more folks to join your Cube. Urge them to send a WARN notice to their elected officials.

In other words, drop dead.  I got a much more respectful response from their webmaster, Kiley Hernandez:

Your comment in regards to isolation is a fair question. However what you consider isolation dissolves quickly as cubes are built and for the purpose of this structure I don’t consider this isolation. Please allow me to explain. The point of the cubes are to keep people in an area of unique perspective engaged with each other without other influence that may hinder them from participating on a broader scale. I think we have taken into consideration that people who participate may not be as boisterous or bold as others, therefore this platform offers them a way to participate on a level they feel comfortable with. Growing Cubes into the neighborhood platform will broaden the communication to others, yet continue to offer that unique sense of belonging to a local movement. This movement by design will progress to a national scale via power blocks, engaging each block member collectively to generate one powerful voice.

My response to both included:

The “really want” bit was not well taken. Don’t tell me what I really want. I responded in part:

“Maybe we want to do more to end this Grave Recession than writing our politicians who don’t listen anyway. Maybe we want to do more than support a jobs bill whose main thrust is Ronald Reagan’s old “trickle-down” — give tax breaks to business and that will encourage jobs creation. Yes, this seems to be the best that the Democrats in Congress are offering, but why is that the limit of what we demand? And I don’t mean by “demand” that the IAM president demands job creation in an old editorial and that’s it. The IAM is a very powerful union, and when it really wants to DEMAND something, it does more than reference an editorial. To the extent that I have been able to ascertain it, Union of the Unemployed would be enthusiastic about a campaign to demand job creation along the lines and scale of the WPA or the Civilian Conservation Corps. Do I have to spell out what a real campaign would look like? You know what a real campaign would look like, because the IAM had to fight some real campaigns to secure its very existence. Well, we the unemployed feel our very existence is threatened at this very moment. Your rhetoric reflects this. But your suggestions for action do not.”

To Kiley, I added:

I have been, and will continue to be, urging Thinktank members to build the IAM Union of the Unemployed to the extent of our ability. I smile when you reference, “your power block.” I only wish. Yet I think our power is still largely untapped, and none of us can afford to have it wasted.

The Thinktank kept posting on the Wall and Discussion threads.  I got all sorts of responses directly to me.  I tried to respond to each one, whether it was a call for throwing all the rascals out, or a link to a group planning a march somewhere, to personal stories of peoples loss and desperate search for jobs.  Some of it was heart-rending.

The problem with Facebook is that it is wonderful for communicating, but totally unstructured for decision-making.  So I sent out a message to all the members saying that I was going to work on the basis of my personal assessment of what the group consensus was.  On two points:

(1) Our primary demand is that the government launch a massive jobs program, along the lines of the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The right to a decent-paying job is a basic human right.

(2) We are proud members of the IAM Union of the Unemployed. We want to build the Union, we want to strengthen the Union, and at the same time we are adamant that the Union itself must organize aggressively, and must carry forward our demand that the government create jobs as stated in point (1) above.

There was one unfortunately impractical suggestion for a decision-making process, but otherwise, there was general consent.

So where are we at?

I’m not sure.  There is definite interest in marching on Washington, not something we can initiate, but something we can participate in.  There is work to be done to sort this out.  I’m not hot on big marches, maybe I’ve been to too many demonstrations without a helmet, consider them now a bus-ride logistics kabuki dance.  But there is something cooking here on the unemployment / jobs issue that seems different.

It has been a surprisingly wrenching experience.  People are looking to me, they need so much, and I have so little to give, other than a place to not be alone, other than an occasional nudge.  I don’t know if the Thinktank can sustain itself.  Perhaps we can have some impact on the IAM.  I’m always skeptical about organized labor, my expectations are low.  But they are not nil.  Maybe the winds of change will blow on them as well.

We are the new poster children, and we can make use of that.  Some people have talked about throwing out all the politicians, and I’ve referred them to the Full Court Press ( www.thefullcourtpress.org ) and a couple joined.  “WPA-style jobs program – create jobs by CREATING JOBS!” is its number one demand, and just for the record, some of you may recall that in Won’t get fooled again.  Again I nailed it.

So why am I writing this?

This Thinktank will only make the tiniest of dents at best.  But there has been some serious talk here about action and organizing, and some blather and macho posturing about courage and will and all.  So I am writing this to say, “This is what organizing looks like!”  In all its boring shitwork.  In all its mundane details.  In all its confusion.  In its moments of tiny success.  In looking into the terrifying void and seeing some little ray of hope.

It has clarified the Full Court Press.  Its 5 points still stand, but if I were to sum up its message in one sentence, it would be, “Congressperson, if you don’t vigorously support a WPA-style jobs program, you’re gonna get primaried.”  That won’t happen until 2012.  People are in need right now.  That’s where I have to be cold-blooded.  That’s emotionally hard.

There is a message about “boots on the ground,” demystifying it perhaps.  If the Thinktank existed in isolation, it would be no more powerful than any other blog.  But there is the connection with the IAM that connects us, however tenuously, with some potential — yes, only potential — power.  Our poster child status gives us opportunities to hook up with other organizations that have their boots on the ground.

There is something fascinating about the Facebook tool.  It’s terribly loose and unstructured, those newfangled gadgets these kids are using nowadays.  But there is power here if it can be connected with the ground.  This is a glimmer.

These are real people, people in need, seeking answers.  There is something particularly touching about their cries against the politicians, some of them highly educated people, some of them the apolitical neighbors next door angry and scared.  There’s a feel here that’s so different from “regular” blogging.  The danger isn’t that I’ll be ignored, that I’ll be insulted.  It’s that this may actually matter, that I’ll let them down.

Just a tiny snapshot.


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  1. Here at DocuDharma there are currently 3240 registered users.  35k page views in a slow week.

    Of course we’ve been doing this for 2 and a half years now.

    • rossl on March 7, 2010 at 23:40

    The union is so new, you’ve got a good chance of influencing it, it seems.

  2. Our effective tax rate is 0%.  Because we don’t make any profit.

    As for what the union was fighting for, the emphasis was on excoriating Jim Bunning for holding up unemployment extensions (which Democratic Party dallying made possible).  While there were references to IAM press releases supporting jobs creation, the actual agenda was to support the bill whose heart was giving tax breaks to small businesses so as to encourage them to create jobs (the lowest paying jobs).  There was no link for contacting the union.

    (emphasis added)

    How are we going to be encouraged to create jobs?  It is not “small” business but “big” business that ensures that the only way we can really exist is to pick up the tiny pieces left by the big businesses in market niches where the amount of money to be made is not enough for them to be interested in.

    And then you have big businesses that are classified as small businesses so all the businesses that are actually small don’t have a chance to create jobs because they are too small.

    A break off zero is still zero.  And a tax break for “small” business won’t create many jobs.

    There are few jobs to be had that way because there is no real competition in America anymore, and the larger more mature businesses get all the favors and breaks from the government.  They have for a long time so giving them more of the same is not going to make them more likely to pick up hiring.  They are not only not helping us compete but they are predisposed against even letting us compete.

  3. I’m prsently self employed.  I’m not a member of the union.

    I’m wondering how those of us in my position, or who are employed at the moment, might be of support to the organizational effort you’re making and doing such a great job with.  Money?  Some other kind of support?  Publicity?  Maybe that’s the next essay on this??

    Years ago I was an organizer.  Those of us “outside” would likee to be told how we can be of help.

    • TMC on March 7, 2010 at 23:59

    that needs to be corrected and that Obama dropped the ball on in the October, are the tax loopholes for corporations that have shifted jobs overseas. Closing those loopholes would generate $200 billion that could be used to create jobs in this country. Obama caved to his corporate masters after having promised to do this.

    Business Fends Off Tax Hit

  4. Look back at the last Depression for lessons learned.

     Unemployed Councils were grassroots organizations of unemployed workers created in the early 1930s to protest mass unemployment and inadequate relief. The first councils were established by the American Communist Party’s Trade Union Unity League, an organization created in the 1920s to promote radical unionism. In March 1930 the Trade Union Unity League organized highly successful mass demonstrations to protest unemployment and demand government relief. In July of that year a national conference sponsored by the Trade Union Unity League declared the formation of the “unemployed councils of the USA.”

    From 1930 to 1935 the councils organized numerous conferences, demonstrations, and national “hunger marches.” These actions often combined demands for aid (“work for wages”) with calls for an end to the capitalist system. In late 1931 the councils were separated from the Trade Union Unity League and placed under the direction of Herbert Benjamin, a veteran Communist Party functionary.

    The frequent national protests and conventions sponsored by the councils during these years were small, but they spawned local organizations that had an important impact on relief policy. By mid 1931 thousands of Americans were receiving aid from large relief organizations with local offices in urban neighborhoods. Relief aid was inadequate, and workers were often subjected to degrading investigations by social workers. Taking advantage of these conditions, local unemployed councils helped clients apply for aid, demonstrated at relief offices, and sent delegations to demand more adequate relief from local officials.

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