Department of Labor figures for December showed 13.1 million unemployed and actively looking for work, almost half of them for more than six months. Another 8.1 million were working part-time involuntarily, and 2.5 million were too discouraged to look for work.
Jobs with Justice chapters have been experimenting with organizing the unemployed, but at a recent conference activists expressed frustration. The model of “unemployed” as an identity group (like race or sex) hasn’t worked, many said.
“How do you organize the unemployed when people don’t want to identify themselves as unemployed?” asked Susan Hurley, executive director of JwJ in Chicago.
Hurley said she tries to communicate that there’s no shame. “These are structural problems in our economy, it’s not about personal failings of anyone who’s out of work right now — 14 million people can’t be wrong,” she says. The group has set up an Unemployed Action Center, open one day a week with computer resources, action-planning meetings, and free lunches.
“The isolation and shame is really tough,” said laid-off Chicago electrician Carole Ramsden. “Especially union members, you have a lot of pride of working at your job, and all of a sudden you lose that.” When she was laid off three years ago, 2,000 members of her local were ahead of her on the list waiting for work.