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Public Employee Press

Part 1 of a series on jobs and unemployment
Jobs crisis


With 31 million people unemployed or unable to find full-time work, unemployment is now the central economic issue of our times.


DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts and Assistant Associate Director Henry Garrido with, at right, Charles Bell and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg of the National Jobs for All Coalition, which organized a conference on employment on Nov. 13-14 with the support of the union.

By GREGORY N. HEIRES

With the unemployment rate at 10 percent, workers are growing increasingly anxious over the disappearance of secure jobs with decent wages and benefits.

“Good jobs are the central economic issue of our times,” said DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts.

“The high rate of unemployment is a wake-up call about the need to make the economy work better for ordinary people, not just the bankers and Wall Street elite.”

With a rebound of stock prices and modest economic growth, many mainstream economists are saying the Great Recession may be ending. But no recession is over until working people who want a job are back at work. The jobs crisis facing our country is undeniable:

  • one in five Americans is unemployed or underemployed, or has given up hope and stopped looking for work;
  • only one job is available for every six Americans seeking work;
  • unemployment now lasts for an average of six months, the longest since the 1930s, and
  • when workers find a new job, it usually pays less than their old one.

Trade unionists, academics and religious and community activists gathered at the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive Nov. 13 and at DC 37 Nov. 14 for a national conference on jobs. The National Jobs for All Coalition, a full-employment advocacy group, organized the conference with the support of DC 37 and other unions and organizations.

DC 37 Assistant Associate Director Henry Garrido served on the conference steering committee and Roberts spoke on a panel. She described the union’s fight to help low-wage workers, including DC 37 members in the city’s Jobs Training Program for former welfare recipients, as well as exploited employees of city contractors.

Moved by the urgency of the jobs crisis, participants pledged to organize a nationwide movement to fight for decent jobs with an eye toward a march on Washington in 2010. “Change will not come about without a mass movement,” said Coalition Chair Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, who heads the Ph.D. program in Social Work at Adelphi University.

Reserve army of labor

Robert Pollin, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, underscored the importance of steady work for individuals and the country, noting that people derive their sense of self-worth from their jobs and the government relies on their taxes to fund federal services. High unemployment, he said, can devastate individuals and families and pit worker against worker in the competition for jobs among the “reserve army of the unemployed.”

Pollin said the current jobs crisis is rooted in the abandonment of the national commitment to full employment that Franklin D. Roosevelt and Democratic presidents promoted during the New Deal and through the 1960s. In the 1970s, neoliberal policymakers abandoned the goal of full employment to focus on controlling inflation to protect wealthy investors while conservatives pushed to cut taxes, reduce government services and deregulate the labor and financial markets. These policies have caused greater economic inequality and undermined union power.




Wages used to rise in tandem with workers’ productivity, but that hasn’t been true in the last three decades.

During the expansion of the 1960s, the median income of middle-income families rose 33 percent, adjusted for inflation. But in the “boom” of the early 2000s, their income rose only 1.6 percent. If the minimum wage had kept up with productivity over the past 30 years, it would be $19 an hour rather than $7.25.

President Ronald Reagan smashed the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981 and intensified the assault on unions, whose membership since then has dropped from 22 percent of the labor force to less than 12 percent.

The Obama economic stimulus has created and saved 1.6 million jobs. But many economists feel the bleak economy demands more help.

Speakers and participants at the conference had several suggestions for ad-dressing the jobs crisis:

  • shifting resources from the military sector of the economy toward clean energy, education and health care, which produce more jobs (see chart);
  • supporting the Employee Free Choice Act to increase unionization;
  • fighting for living wage laws to improve opportunities for less-educated workers
  • raising the federal minimum wage;
  • extending unemployment benefits, and
  • increasing aid to state and local governments to preserve jobs and services threatened by the loss of tax revenues.

Speaker Glen Ford, executive editor of the online Black Agenda Report, said it makes little sense to talk about creating jobs without first addressing employment discrimination and the high incarceration rate of Black men.

Government action

At a forum Dec. 4 at the Murphy Institute in New York City, panelists Steven C. Pitts, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and David Jones, president of the Community Service Society of New York, said raising union representation and rebuilding an alliance with the white progressive community are critical to creating good jobs in the Black community.

With official employment affecting 15.4 million people, hidden employment hitting 15.3 million and the nation’s working poor estimated at 30 million, people at the Nov. 13-14 conference called for a jobs program modeled after the New Deal and urged the Obama administration to carry out a second stimulus package. Given the private sector’s failure to create jobs, conferees generally felt it’s up to the government to solve the jobs crisis.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that President Barack Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan protected or created up to 1.6 million jobs. Many of those jobs are in the public sector, where tax revenue has fallen because of the weak economy.

On Dec. 3, the Obama administration held a jobs summit at the White House. Obama told the gathering that the administration would consider “every demonstrably good idea” for job creation. But he said that while government can play a “critical role” in establishing economic conditions for growth, “ultimately, true economic recovery is only going to come from the private sector.”

Coinciding with Obama’s jobs summit, the labor movement issued its own Rising unemployment plan. The AFL-CIO called for extending assistance to unemployed workers; rebuilding public schools, energy systems and roads; increasing aid to cities and states to maintain jobs and services; supporting community-based job initiatives, and directing unused funds from the bank bailout to help small and medium-sized business get credit.

In a talk at the Brookings Institution on Dec. 8, Obama outlined a series of proposals to help small businesses and promote jobs. These included tapping the unused $200 billion in the bank bailout for jobs creation, rebates to homeowners who make energy-saving weatherization improvements, business tax incentives and increasing stimulus plan spending on public infrastructure.

“The president really does understand the urgency of job creation,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka after the White House summit. “He said it numerous times: jobs, jobs, jobs.”

 

 

 

 
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