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July 2010, Week 3

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Fri, 16 Jul 2010 20:37:30 -0400
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Organizing the Unemployed

Facing South 
Online Magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies
http://www.southernstudies.org/2010/07/organizing-the-unemployed.html

The federal jobs numbers released earlier this month
showed that a whopping 14 million Americans are
unemployed, with 6.8 million out of work now for more
than 27 weeks.

The unemployment crisis has led to growing calls for
the labor movement to take action to help the jobless
-- by organizing them.

"We need the AFL-CIO, we need central labor councils
that bring together different members to pool their
resources and start organizing the unemployed," Bill
Fletcher Jr. of the Center for Labor Renewal recently
said in an interview with GRITtv.

The idea of organizing the jobless is not new: In 1894,
populist politician Jacob Coxey of Ohio led unemployed
workers in a protest march on Washington that came to
be known as "Coxey's Army." The first significant
protest march ever held in the nation's capital, it
took place during the second year of a four-year
economic depression that at the time was the worst the
country had ever experienced. The marchers called on
the government to create jobs through public works.

Later, during the Great Depression, militant left-wing
labor organizations like the Workers Alliance, the
Unemployed Workers' Councils and the Unemployed
Citizens' League mobilized out-of-work Americans to
pressure state and local governments for jobs and
benefits. According to one historical account:

In cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit, the
Unemployed Councils made an immediate impact, staging
large attention-getting demonstrations in the winter
and spring of 1930 and in subsequent years building
neighborhood based Councils that fought for public
assistance and rallied neighbors to conduct rent
strikes and resist evictions.

And in 1932, a Roman Catholic priest from Pittsburgh
named James Renshaw Cox led a march of 25,000
unemployed Pennsylvanians on Washington, calling on
Congress to launch a public works program and increase
the inheritance tax to 70%. The unprecedented mass
demonstration -- dubbed "Cox's Army" (in photo above)
-- spurred the founding of the Jobless Party and Cox's
run for the presidency, though he eventually dropped
out and gave his support to Democrat Franklin Delano
Roosevelt.

Those grassroots organizing efforts helped build
political support for helping the unemployed,
eventually culminating in President Roosevelt's New
Deal.

Today, with the Great Recession dragging on, there are
efforts underway once again to organize the jobless.

Earlier this year, the International Association of
Machinists and Aerospace Workers launched the Ur Union
of the Unemployed, or UCubed. Unemployed and
underemployed workers can sign up at UCubed's website
-- www.unionofunemployed.com -- and are then organized
by ZIP code to advocate for legislation to help the
jobless.

"We're trying to connect unemployed people with one
another to eliminate the sense of isolation that comes
with being unemployed," an IAM spokesman told In These
Times, "and to give people the means to be activists."

In Indiana, the Unemployed and Anxiously Employed
Workers Initiative (UAEWI) was formed in response to
the 2008 financial crisis. It's been involved in
efforts to give unemployed workers a greater voice in
shaping job retraining programs and was part of a
successful effort to prevent cuts in unemployment
insurance benefits.

Meanwhile, organizing is underway for an Oct. 2 mass
demonstration in Washington calling for more government
job creation. Among the groups involved in the One
Nation Working Together march are the AFL-CIO, SEIU and
NAACP.

Fletcher says marching on Washington is the right thing
to do -- but he questions whether it's enough.

"What happens on Aug. 2? What happens on Sept. 2?" he
asked. "Why aren't we talking about more localized
actions where people are raising hell?"

(Photo of Cox's Army from from ExplorePAhistory.com.)

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