I have lately been talking with friends about our common condition: unemployment. All of us have graduate diplomas in our respective fields (Architecture, Philosophy, Women's Studies and Creative Writing) and none of us can find jobs to save our lives. Universities are getting rid of entire departments or of all of their adjuncts; the housing market being what it is there's not much in the way of jobs designing buildings; City, State, and Federal agencies are either actively laying people off, or they are just freezing all new hiring (eg. the Post Office). There are still jobs out there, of course, but they fall into two categories that are as unappealing one as the other: either sales (but since the economy is more or less stagnant and most sales jobs are paid by commission, this is more like volunteering than actual work), or very low-paying jobs that used to be justified as temporary work for young people while they were still in school and which we have all begun accepting as just another job over the past 20 years.
Things are bad, very bad. What's worse is that the budget proposals currently under discussion at the state and federal levels are clearly going to make things worse instead of better: everywhere the only discussions there are have to do with how much to cut, how many people to lay off, how to reduce salaries and benefits for those who are still employed, all of which will only make things worse for those of us who don't presently have work by increasing the competition for the few jobs that do open up while lowering further what employers can get away with offering as remuneration.
Have I mentioned that things are really bad yet? As all these developments are unfolding a single fact is becoming increasingly clear to me: this is not a temporary situation. In spite of what Obama, his advisers and all the monkey suits on TV are saying, things are not going to get better anytime soon. In fact, the Republicans are not even bothering to lie about that anymore. A few days ago Boehner just blurted out that if budget cuts resulted in further job loss that was just too bad. The likelihood seems to be that unemployment is going to grow instead of shrink over the next few years, that salaries for the bottom 90% of the population are going to shrink (currently at a median of about $30 Gs), and therefore that inequality is going to increase even more than its current levels (right now the top .01% of US pop make $27 mills/year on average, the top .1% make $3 mills/year, the top 1% make 1 mill/year--on average). This, in turn, will mean that the already ridiculous amount of influence this segment of the population has in Washington will only increase. And since they are the ones largely responsible for the current fiscal crisis and recession (anyone who believes that it's the fault of unions or government employees should sign up to be on the Koch brothers' payroll) it's unlikely that any of them will make propositions that will actually improve anything for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Certainly, Obama who identifies with this set (the rich) even if he is not quite a part of it has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt what that segment of the elite that has "good" intentions is willing to do: pragmatism dictates incremental gestures the effect of which is actually to break off one segment of a certain constituency (for instance, the precariously insured and the uninsured--i.e. once again, the bottom 90%) in order to make opposition to the existing system (which, in his view, is unchangeable, of course) less intense. This will essentially be the effect of his health insurance bill.
As I started thinking about this situation and talking about it with my unemployed friends it began appearing to me that those of us who are unemployed have two choices ahead of us, neither of which, realistically, has to do with finding sustainable jobs: either wallow in our respective corners, overcome by feelings of self-pity and inadequacy, or come to terms with the political and systemic nature of our predicament and do something about it. The fact is that people are not unemployed because they are incompetent but because there are no jobs to be had.
That's when I came up with what seemed to me like a really bright idea: an unemployed union. All of us 15 or 20 million unemployed people should come together in a union of the unemployed, an unemployed union that organizes politically on the basis of the systemic, large-scale nature of unemployment today by making demands for policies that reflect the actual causes of this phenomenon (gross inequalities, maldistribution of work--i.e. some people work 80/90 hour weeks while others don't work at all or not enough to make a living) and that reflect the dire and immediate needs of our condition (for instance the need for an unconditional living wage, the need to raise the minimum wage). Just in case something like that was already going on I made a cursory internet search, and low and behold! there it already was: the unemployed union, with its own website and everything.
But it turns out that "our" union is organized by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), member in good standing of the AFL-CIO. As such, it's about as exciting as the labor movement currently is--which is to say, in spite of Wisconsin, not exciting at all. The unemployed union can help you live less with what you've got (free financial advice software!); it can put you in touch with your DC rep so you can ask for an extension of unemployment benefits (really up to date...), and it can help you... get a job. Its motto? "Hire US, America." With that kind of firepower we might as well all lie down in our coffins and shut the lid...
What this means is that we, the unemployed still need a union, preferably not an AFL affiliate front group. Outfits like that, like the Unemployed Union, clearly just push for business unionism as usual, cooperation with employers so that everyone can get "what they need," organizing/fundraising for elections, etc... The problem with this model for us unemployed is that there is no room for us in it: we can never get "what we need" from employers (because we have nothing they need--or rather, because what they need us to be, we already are) and neither political party can do anything for us in the medium or long run (as they are both quite expertly demonstrating) since the only way they understand the economy is in terms of the international competitiveness of US business, which only benefits from fairly high levels of unemployment in the form of lower wages.
Our only advantage as a group is that we are a source of great potential instability, precisely because we don't count, because there is no accounting for us in the institutions that manage US workers--i.e. unions and employers. Really, from the standpoint of the US State-Business complex, in this situation the best solution to unemployment would be a deadly virus that only affected the unemployed. Not counting for the system means that it wishes you were dead. When nearly 1/5 of the US working age population can look forward to long-term unemployment it means that structural changes have to be made, precisely because people aren't going to just lay on their backs and die.
So. I don't want to die, and I suspect a significant portion of those 20-230 million unemployed and underemployed people out there aren't planning on it either. Looks like it's time to start a real unemployed union, one preferably that deals with existing realities and proposes realistic alternatives (realistic for the unemployed that is, not for the millionaires in congress or the billionaires for whom they work).
My unemployed union needs everyone: unemployed, underemployed, employed and sick of it, underpaid and unpaid workers (for instance: undocumented immigrants, adjuncts, commercial airplane pilots, and all interns). And also, it needs desperately not to be mine. It needs unemployed construction workers and unemployed economists, underemployed poets and unemployed architects, unemployed health workers, unemployed politicians and unemployed salesmen and women.
Its task will be first to articulate what unemployment signifies today, what kinds of changes it necessitates, what kinds of changes it makes possible. Let's not forget that being unemployed or underemployed could be good if it didn't mean poverty: it could mean more time for participating in democratic discourse (assuming there were such a thing, of course); it could mean time to write poetry or make art--i.e. to enjoy life, to enrich one's own life and the lives of others, to be creative (and therefore to augment social wealth). In other words, my unemployed union wouldn't be about finding jobs for everyone: it would be about redistributing the work and the wealth that are already there.
That's the unemployed union I want. Anyone else?