Can Labor Organize the Unemployed?

Published on ZNet, by Jenny Brown, February 16, 2012.

Wrenching testimonies from laid-off workers are overflowing the internet, crying out from the pages of policy reports, and popping up in commercial media. But unions are still grappling with how to organize the unemployed, including their own ex-members, into a political force.  

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.

Unfortunately, unions don’t do a good job of organizing this vast pool said Tom Lewandowski, who spent nine years on layoff from GE starting in 1975.

Now, as president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council in Fort Wayne, he’s leading an effort to survey unemployed workers, watchdog the county’s economic development, and demand accountability from the unemployment office for laid-off workers struggling to navigate the system.

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“When we say ‘jobs,’ the corporate class says ‘economic development,’” said Tom Lewandowski of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council. But, Lewandowski said, governments’ policy of delivering big subsidies to create jobs is “pretty much fraudulent.”

The unemployed initiative in Fort Wayne has been uncovering abuse and confronting public officials. It’s following the lead of Good Jobs First, a policy center in Washington, D.C., that tracks the sweetheart deals that pass for job creation in many cities and states.

The Indiana group discovered that the state’s Economic Development Corporation regularly exaggerates its success at job creation. A company may have claimed it would hire people full-time at $15 an hour, but when group members investigated, they found temp jobs at minimum wage, or empty cornfields receiving tax breaks for “job creation.”

They fed the info to an Indianapolis TV station, which produced an award-winning report.

Public subsidies even go to contractors that are undermining union jobs. Gayle Goodrich, an Auto Workers benefits rep at Navistar in Fort Wayne, said that after layoffs in 2007, workers sent to the unemployment office were directed back to their own plant under contract to another company, at lower pay and no benefits. They learned that the contractor had been subsidized by economic development funds.

In December the plant closed, and the union won $7 million in job training and relocation assistance for 400 laid-off Navistar workers, when it was able to prove that many of their jobs were being sent overseas and not to Illinois as the company had claimed.


Local campaigns on unemployment often veer towards a more manageable and familiar fight, against discrimination in hiring.

A December 1 report by USAction, a Democratic policy group, collected 700 stories from the unemployed to pressure Congress for jobs spending and extended unemployment benefits.

Age discrimination was mentioned by dozens of participants, as was discrimination against workers simply for being unemployed.

A 61-year-old in Pinellas Park, Florida, said, “There are no openings for mature women when there are so many people available to do entry level work.” The report also noted that recent high school and college graduates are unable to find jobs.

Legislation to stop discrimination against unemployed applicants has been introduced in California, and New Jersey adopted a law to ban job ads that specify “employed only.”

UNITE HERE, the hotel union, has joined with civil rights groups and the National Organization for Women to target TransUnion. That company sells credit reports to employers, creating another Catch-22 for those trying to get back on their feet. The groups say the practice disproportionately affects African Americans, Latinos, and women—and anyone without a job.

In Atlanta, an unemployed speak-out organized by JwJ exposed discrimination faced by the formerly incarcerated, a group facing 25 percent unemployment in Atlanta, Davis said.

The effort looks to follow a successful campaign in Massachusetts to “ban the box.” The check-box on applications where ex-felons must disclose their status often means they can’t even secure job interviews. When they are able to get in the door and explain their situation, their chances of getting hired go up dramatically, Davis said.

An energetic ban-the-box campaign in Atlanta has been led by the people affected, Davis said, whereas more general unemployed organizing has not gained much traction.

“It’s easier to organize on issues versus problems,” she said. “Lack of jobs is a huge problem, there are so many factors that contribute to it. It’s easier to say ‘this group is dealing with high unemployment’” because of discrimination, and try to fix that.

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