Tag Archives: Covid-19

Unemployed Workers of the World Unite?!?

New Orleans   My comrades and friends at Working-Class Perspectives allowed me once again the honor of having my say on their platform on Labor Day, and this time I did a shout out to unemployed workers and other workers who are just one paycheck or less away in this current pandemic depression.  Hang with me, brothers and sisters, get your marching shoes on, because here we go:


Karl Marx’s famous phrase spoke of the unemployed as the “industrial reserve army.” His argument was plain. Creating greater unemployment was a key tool in giving employers the upper hand in forcing down wages and disciplining workers. I can still vividly remember a typical call-and-response from my early organizing days. When I would run into a colleague who was between organizing jobs, I would ask what they were doing these days.  The answer: “I’m in the army.”  Caught off guard in the beginning, I’d reply, “Really?” to which the answer would be, “Yes, the vast army of the unemployed.”  It wasn’t funny, but we would laugh anyway. The joke somehow made being out of a job less personal and more systemic, and the fact that it seemed to have a reddish tint to the phrase made it all even richer in the fading decades of the Cold War.

What now on another US Labor Day?

The reserve army is indeed vast.   Twenty million jobs were lost in March alone as the statistical unemployment rate jumped from 4.4% to 14.7%.  With one-million new unemployment filers per week, we are now around thirty million unemployed with rates over 10% in record highs since the Great Depression.  The world is in no better shape.  In the European Union, fifteen million were unemployed as of June 2020, and the current unemployment rate is around 8%.  Country to country, the stories are horrific and the numbers are incalculable in places like India and many African countries.

Reading Francis Fox Piven and Dick Cloward’s Poor Peoples’ Movements, it was always exhilarating to discover the work of the Unemployed Councils in the 1930s, their marches, rallies, anti-eviction fights, and demands for $35 per week and $5 per dependent.  I can still vividly remember ACORN’s own efforts to organize unemployed workers, CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Act) workers, and youth job actions during the 1978 recession during the Carter presidency. We held sit-ins in Denver, organized rallies of over a thousand in Philadelphia, and faced arrests and police brutality in response to an action in New Orleans.

The Unemployed Councils thought they were harnessing the anger and laying the groundwork for the collapse of capitalism in the Great Depression.     The Unemployment Act of 1920 established a benefit for unemployed workers.  The Social Security Act of 1935 encouraged the states to establish individual unemployment insurance schemes that have led to the patchwork quilt of rates and benefits paid now.  The Depression lingered at many levels until WWII, but the protests helped create the changes that last still.

In the Trump Recession, capitalism is barely cracking, and even a Google search can’t find evidence of mass protests of unemployed workers.  At least, not yet. But why?

Now the government’s response to the pandemic job meltdown from almost statistical full employment to depression-scale numbers was radical in its own way.  Not because of action on the streets. More because of fear in the White House and halls of Congress with an election looming and no hope for a cure to the coronavirus.  Money stuffed a sock into mouths that might have roared with rage.  Republican Senators and some corporations have yelled louder that the $600 supplemental unemployment benefits kept potential workers away from demanding abysmally low-waged jobs because they were getting more on unemployment than they did when they were working.  Some justice there!  In Europe, 60 million workers were paid supplements to prevent layoffs.  The price was high, but governments bought labor peace.

Most of the US’s super-sized benefit payments have now ended.  In Trump’s election desperation, some unemployed workers may get a supplemental $300 a week, and in some richer states, $400, but that’s a stopgap and a poor one for only five weeks.  On this Labor Day, Congress is still divided over restoring larger supplemental payments either until the end of 2020 or the end of the pandemic, whichever comes later.

Did this experience legitimize the case for something like a guaranteed annual wage or a minimum survival standard in welfare benefits and work and unemployment support? Could that become the legacy of this disaster for workers, as the Social Security Act was for the Great Depression?

I doubt it.

In the 30s, workers and their families didn’t buy President Hoover’s excuses and “good times are around the corner” promises.  They turned him out and ushered in the Roosevelt programs. Today, paradoxically, President Trump’s mishandling of this mess still rates him polling better than former Vice-President Biden in his ability to handle the economy.  Perhaps workers, the unemployed, and others will go to the voting booth or the mailbox this November and turn Trump out in the same way.  Perhaps not.

Even if they do, the lesson of history and all the great victories won for workers is clear.  Unless workers vote with their feet as well as their ballots, significant change is unlikely to come.  Until these forces come together as a vast army to push away the opposition, change is unlikely, and more pain and hardship is inevitable.

Juliet Schor and Samuel Bowles argued persuasively some time ago that workers’ internal calculations about the “cost of job loss” correlated better than unemployment rates with the incidence of strikes. Workers figure the price of action to achieve wage and security gains versus the risk of unemployment. That calculation should encourage action today, as we have masses of workers unemployed with forecasts of more furloughs and permanent layoffs to come. Statistical unemployment is already over 15% for Black workers and 18.5% for young people under 24.  The cost of job loss for millions is now zero, while the gains for action are potentially huge.

Unemployed workers of the world unite!  You have little to lose and a different world and economy to gain.


Double Trouble for Service Workers:  No Jobs and Little Unemployment

 Pearl River     There was a peculiar piece in the Wall Street Journal that left me scratching my head and then trying to remember, somewhat successfully, high school algebra.  The article talked about the gap between service workers and professionals getting to work at home and often keeping their jobs.  Ok, sure, but what had caught my eye were two graphics that accompanied the article, but were never mentioned in the story by Ben Eisen at all, which was too weird, especially since several were hammer blows to the head and heart.

The graphic illustrated the results of Barnard College Professor Elizabeth Ananat’s survey of 1000 service workers in the Philadelphia-area.   Her findings powerfully underline the pandemic and economic disaster with some frightening twists.  She found that of the 1000 workers, 40% were laid off.  That’s 400 workers.  Of those 400, 87% applied for unemployment, that 348 of the workers.  Of those 348, only 65% actually received benefits.  That’s 226 workers, and that’s a scandal.  On those 226 workers, only 77% or 174 workers actually received the $600 special stimulus money, and that’s another outrage.  Let’s review.  Of the 40% of service workers laid off, less than half, just 44% of those jobless workers actually got the unemployment benefits with the stimulus.

Remember please that unemployment is based on insurance that workers and their employers are paying.  It’s not a giveaway.  That more than 1 out 3 workers applying for unemployment are blocked from receiving their benefits, underlines how the state-administered programs are robbing huge numbers of eligible workers of their entitled benefits.  Once qualified, the fact that a too inept federal government, once again trying to push money to the jobless through too frequently incompetent, tight-fisted, and out-of-date state unemployment systems, picked the pockets of another almost 1 out of 4 of the workers actually receiving benefits.

If it’s not enough to contemplate the horror of government bureaucracies at war with their workers even in an economic disaster, for the sake of argument, and since there are no better figures out there, let’s extrapolate Professor Ananat’s numbers, as if they applied uniformly throughout the rest of America’s service sector.  We know from Bureau of Labor Statistics that 30 million workers were getting unemployment benefits at the end of July 2020.  On the success rate of applicant to recipient she had found, that would mean more than 46 million service workers had applied for unemployment with 30 million making it through the system.  Of those 30 million at the same 77% ratio, 23.1 million might have accessed the extra $600 in supplemental benefits.

Incredible, and it gets worse!  At the same ratios, that means 52.5 million service workers were laid off with 46 million plus actually applying for the benefits that they had earned and paid for.  Of 108 million service workers as of July 2019, that would be way too close to half of all service sector workers finding themselves unemployed during the pandemic with only 44% or 23.1 million getting the full benefits of the stimulus payments.

The other unexamined, but invaluable, graphics with the article were as telling.  One showed the soaring level of hunger and food insecurity now, but given the figures just discussed, who could be surprised.  The other detailed the surge of spending that had accompanied the receipt of stimulus money based on workers who had received the benefits and had Chase bank accounts.  In another cruel irony, it is clear to me that if all the unemployed had received benefits and the stimulus money, consumer spending and much of the economy would be roaring right now, rather than slow walking through the depression.

Why unemployed workers are not breaking down the doors of unemployment offices in the states and pounding on the office walls of their federal and state elected officials to fix these scandals that have hijacked their money and benefits is a mystery to me, but only highlights the strength and pervasiveness of American and corporate ideology that continues to rob American workers blind.