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You May Ask Yourself, How Did I Get Here? Being Underemployed Leaves Time for Organizing

The New York Times recently published two of the year’s most important stories. For those who were too distracted by Hurricane Sandy or election activities to read them, allow me to sum up:

  • The retail and wholesale industry has cut one million full-time jobs since 2006. It has also created 500,000 part-time jobs. So the 18 and a half million retail workers in the US are seeing their hours cut, many to the point that their wages are rendered unlivable. A sweeping Oct 27 article by Steven Greenhouse includes this chilling quotation:

“Many employers now schedule shifts as short as two or three hours, while historically they may have scheduled eight-hour shifts,” said David Ossip, founder of Dayforce, a producer of scheduling software used by chains like Aéropostale and Pier One Imports.

The scheduling software, it turns out, is a little gift from Walmart to workers all over the US. Other companies saw that Walmart was able to calibrate its workers’ shifts to exactly the times of highest retail demand, and they snapped up and copied the technique.

  • About five million American workers have been unemployed for more than six months, and no federal help is coming. If that isn’t bleak enough, the relentless only-lazy-people-go-on-welfare propaganda that has spewed forth from politicians and right-wing media for decades (actually, for centuries, but we’ll get to that in a moment) helps prompt the long-term unemployed to say things like this to reporters Annie Lowrey and Catherine Rampell:

“I don’t enjoy being out of work,” Ms. Hogg said in an interview. “I don’t enjoy having to ask friends to give me rides or get things for me. I want to take care of myself. I’ve been on my own since I was 18 years old. It’s hard for me. It’s demoralizing. It’s hard to ask people for things when you’ve been independent the rest of your life.”

So, among those hit hardest by the stripping of the US economy by today’s Wall Street robber barons, we have two populations: one, the underemployed, whose once-livable jobs are disintegrating into dry dust before their eyes. These folks become easy targets for anti-relief or anti-welfare propagandists—they don’t have far to look to see the punishment that awaits them if they actually become unemployed. So they keep scrabbling to shape the dust back together into something resembling a living. They may grumble about how hard it is, but mostly they keep quiet and keep paying the bills as best they can.

The other group, the long-term unemployed, is so desperately busy applying for jobs and lining up food stamp and housing applications and trying to hang on to their kids that any remaining morale and self-regard is beaten out of them by poverty and its associated stigmas.

Persistent suckers, those stigmas associated with poverty. They worm their way into the minds and hearts of good people, whispering that if you were worthy, if you were among the “deserving” poor, you might get some help. Otherwise, you’re on your own.

But what else could we do, as a country of stubborn self-reliant Protestants with a world-famous work ethic? What if we released ourselves, through a clear-eyed look at our situation and at past examples, from the self-punishment of thinking that it’s all our fault? What possibilities for new systems of relief, what new collaborative solutions would arise with the mobilization of millions of underemployed and unemployed people? Could sustained direct action begin to match or eclipse the influence that uber-rich donors like the Waltons and the Kochs exert on politicians?

It has happened here before. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward documented the waves of uprisings by unemployed Americans in their 1978 book, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. The list of uprisings mirrors the waves of economic depression throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, culminating in the largest such uprising occurring during the most intense downturn—the Great Depression. Aided by anarchists, by communists, by unions, the outcast workers of the industrial age rose up to demand relief.

What did the unemployed people win from hitting the streets in search of relief? Soup kitchens, in the beginning. Sometimes work programs to build and repair local infrastructure. Food riots resulted in cities allocating cash funds to hand out to the unemployed. Renters and homeowners organized to stop the wave of evictions during the Great Depression, winning rent relief and sometimes even a moratorium on evictions. Unemployed Councils around the country marched on city halls and state houses to demand funding for relief bills that could help families survive with a weekly aid check. When politicians tried to weasel out of their commitments to provide aid, they marched again.

This time around, it can start with the underemployed. Those who have lost weekly work hours because of these managerial accounting programs are getting to witness the way businesses manipulate labor costs to maximize profits. They are seeing themselves being reduced to numbers in a spreadsheet, but they don’t have to accept it. Like Dorothy with her ruby slippers, the road back to a recognizable human existence isn’t something they need to go searching for. It has been with them all along.

And as with Dorothy, consciousness may come slowly at first. They may not get quite as mad as the 20,000 Chicago unemployed workers were in 1883 when they marched on the City Council under the slogan Bread or Blood. (Although that’s an awe-inspiring slogan.) Reaching out to other under-employed and unemployed people might be a better start.

We’re a long way from having an Unemployed Council in every town, but Chicago’s Jobs with Justice chapter has opened an Unemployed Action Center where folks can get referred to services, look for work, and join a rally on the first Friday of the month when the jobless numbers come out. The Machinists’ union (IAMAW) and the AFL-CIO have modest programs to support the unemployed and raise awareness about the deliberate attacks on working class people by the 1%. Little by little, the under-employed are waking up to the fact that this whole mess isn’t their fault. Maybe then they will tell the long-term unemployed that it isn’t their fault, either—and then get to work advocating for the immediate, sustainable relief that they all deserve.

One thought on “You May Ask Yourself, How Did I Get Here? Being Underemployed Leaves Time for Organizing

  1. Fascinating read, and hits incredibly close to home. I am currently underemployed, and writing (particularly about social justice topics, and even if it isn’t “organizing” proper) has been a HUGE help in dealing with the self-image hit that comes with sporadic work and periods of unemployment. Thanks for writing this, Mariya!

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