LABOR TALK/Harry Kelber

Jobs For the ‘Forgotten People’

The legions of unemployed have become the “forgotten people” of the 21st century. With 13.7 million people out of work, it should be considered a national emergency, requiring immediate government attention, like the banks and AIG have been receiving. Yet, creating jobs for hard-pressed Americans is still very low on the priority list of the Obama administration.

The number of long-term unemployed (those who have been jobless for 27 weeks or more) has soared to 3.7 million, but this shocking statistic stirs almost no emotion, so anesthetized have we become to the miseries of the poor. Indeed, the unemployed are treated like social outcasts, who do not have a collective voice. Columnists and commentators rarely write about the jobless—a dull subject—preferring more “sexy” ones of public interest.

When Congress approved the $787 billion stimulus package and President Obama promised to create 3.5 million jobs (his goal was once 2.5 million jobs) the unemployed were encouraged; help was on the way. But even a fraction of those pledged jobs have yet to appear. In fact, General Motors will eliminate 21,000 more jobs, not counting the layoffs in companies that depend on the auto industry.

Despite the continuing flood of layoffs, the mood in the White House and Wall Street has become upbeat. “Glimmers” of recovery are dutifully reported and many economists see the recession moving into recovery mode by the end of 2009.

But even if we’re on the path to recovery, mainstream economists agree that layoffs will probably continue to the end of 2010, because companies will be restructuring to meet new economic conditions. Many more companies will disappear, eliminating the jobs that workers once had.

What may very well happen is that President Obama, focused on major domestic and foreign policy issues, will turn over the unemployment problem to private industry, which will try to cut labor costs by hiring fewer workers at lower wages.

So what are the millions of unemployed to do? How are they to survive? What happens to working families when there are no bread-winners to bring home a paycheck? Does anyone care?

Will the Labor Movement Fight for the Unemployed?

It is a sad fact that top labor leaders have rarely made statements about the unemployed or initiated some action in their behalf, even when the number of jobless workers reached 5.7 million since the start of the recession in December 2007. Nor has the labor press shown much interest in highlighting the unemployment issue as a prime concern of working families that organized labor should address.

How can labor help the unemployed? Here are some suggestions—and I’m sure union members can add others:

• We should have an oversight committee to monitor the number of public works projects that have been created, and the number of people put to work.

• We should insist on increasing the number of infrastructure projects and speed up the tempo of hiring the necessary work force.

• We should demand that the Obama administration appoint a “czar,” who would have overall responsibility for creating and preserving jobs.

• We should open up discussion on whether we need a second economic stimulus package, if the first one is not creating a sufficient number of jobs. Remember, the banks and AIG went back to the government for additional bailout money—and got it.

• And very important, we must establish close relations with the unemployed, to involve them in the struggle for fair treatment of America’s working class.

Harry Kelber of Brooklyn, N.Y., a longtime labor activist, edits and, P.O. Box 1002, New York, NY 10276-1002. He also is a candidate for the AFL-CIO Executive Council. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2009

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