Unemployment politics and the organizational deficit

Slid into the Business section of Sunday’s NY Times, Catherine Rampell notes that the number of unemployed in the United States has climbed over 14 million, but that the unemployed are politically invisible:

In some ways, this boils down to math, both economic and political. Yes, 9.2 percent of the American work force is unemployed — but 90.8 percent of it is working. To elected officials, the unemployed are a relatively small constituency. And with apologies to Karl Marx, the workers of the world, particularly the unemployed, are also no longer uniting.

Nor are they voting — or at least not as much as people with jobs. In 2010, some 46 percent of working Americans who were eligible to vote did so, compared with 35 percent of the unemployed, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University. There was a similar turnout gap in the 2008 election.

No wonder policy makers don’t fear unemployed Americans. The jobless are, politically speaking, more or less invisible.

It wasn’t always so. During the Great Depression, riots erupted on the bread lines. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, angry workers descended on Washington by the busload.

And we know it’s worse than these numbers would suggest.  The numbers include some of the young college graduates who can’t find work in their fields, but not those who are marking time in part-time service jobs.  The numbers include the middle-aged workers laid off in the last two years, knowing that they won’t be able to get the kind of salary, benefits, and even security that just disappeared, but not those who declared early retirement to access pensions, hoping, desperately, that something big will change.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill the talks about the budget and the deficit focus on bond holders, not the unemployed and underemployed.  As Rampell suggests, for the politicians this make sense.  Why pay attention to a group that isn’t demanding attention?  Squeaky wheels don’t always get greased, but politicians respond to pressure.

Republican plans for job creation are familiar: reduce taxes so that people with money can invest–in creating jobs; and, in Rep. Ryan’s budget, lay off state workers to drive down salaries–and create jobs.  Although these strategies would be a hard sell to anyone actually looking for work, the unemployed are not an audience that matters politically–at least not yet.  And Democrats haven’t offered much of a response.

So where are the angry crowds demanding work?  Awful conditions don’t, by themselves, organize and mobilize people, formulate political demands, and create politics.  (We’ve talked about this myth of spontaneity before.) Focusing on the character of contemporary unemployment, its demography and psychology, helps explain the organizing challenges (see economist Nancy Folbre’s blog entry at the Times), but not the organizational deficit.

For the unemployed to emerge as a potent political force, even as part of a larger social movement, someone has to invest in organization.  Historically, organized labor has taken up the concerns of the unemployed, but not as much in the United States as elsewhere in the wealthy world, and not so much in recent years.   American unions are now taking another round of terrible attacks that punctuate a fifty year decline in size and political influence, hands full trying to protect teachers and other public employees who are already organized and, at the moment, employed.  They fight layoffs, wage and benefit cuts, and even more significantly, orchestrated–and often popular–campaigns to blame them for America’s ills.

Here’s the thing: without Labor, it’s not clear anyone else will take up the cause.

And it’s not just unemployment.

Across the United States, state budgets are forcing cuts in public school funding, for example, leading to shorter school years with fewer teachers and textbooks.  Teachers unions are engaged on this issue, but students and parents….not so much.

Until something better comes along, we’re dependent upon unions to lead the campaigns for employment and public services generally.  No many how op-eds you lay end to end, nothing happens until we see political mobilization.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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