As 2011 begins, nearly 15 million people are officially unemployed in the United States and another 11.5 million have either settled for part-time work or simply given up the search for a job. To regain the 5 percent unemployment level of December 2007, about 300,000 jobs would have to be created each month for several years. There are no signs that this is likely to happen soon. And joblessness now hits people harder because it follows in the wake of decades of stagnating worker earnings, high consumer indebtedness, eviscerated retirement funds and rollbacks of the social safety net.
So where are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs? After all, the injustice is apparent. Working people are losing their homes and their pensions while robber-baron CEOs report renewed profits and windfall bonuses. Shouldn't the unemployed be on the march? Why aren't they demanding enhanced safety net protections and big initiatives to generate jobs?
It is not that there are no policy solutions. Left academics may be pondering the end of the American empire and even the end of neoliberal capitalism, and — who knows — in the long run they may be right. But surely there is time before the darkness settles to try to relieve the misery created by the Great Recession with massive investments in public-service programs, and also to use the authority and resources of government to spur big new initiatives in infrastructure and green energy that might, in fact, ward off the darkness.
Nothing like this seems to be on the agenda. Instead the next Congress is going to be fixated on an Alice in Wonderland policy of deficit reduction by means of tax and spending cuts. As for the jobless, right-wing commentators and Congressional Republicans are reviving the old shibboleth that unemployment is caused by generous unemployment benefits that indulge poor work habits and irresponsibility. Meanwhile, in a gesture eerily reminiscent of the blatherings of a panicked Herbert Hoover, President Obama invites corporate executives to a meeting at Blair House to urge them to invest some of their growing cash reserves in economic growth and job creation, in the United States, one hopes, instead of China.
Mass protests might change the president's posture if they succeeded in pressing him hard from his base, something that hasn't happened so far in this administration. But there are obstructions to mobilizing the unemployed that would have to be overcome.
First, when people lose their jobs they are dispersed, no longer much connected to their fellow workers or their unions and not easily connected to the unemployed from other workplaces and occupations. By contrast workers and students have the advantage of a common institutional setting, shared grievances and a boss or administrator who personifies those grievances. In fact, despite some modest initiatives — the AFL-CIO's Working America, which includes the unemployed among their ranks, or the International Association of Machinists' Ur Union of Unemployed, known as Ucubed — most unions do little for their unemployed, who after all no longer pay dues and are likely to be malcontents.
Because layoffs are occurring in all sectors and job grades, the unemployed are also very diverse. This problem of bringing people of different ethnicities or educational levels or races together is the classic organizing problem, and it can sometimes be solved by good organizers and smart tactics, as it repeatedly was in efforts to unionize the mass production industries. Note also that only recently the prisoners in at least seven different facilities in the Georgia state penitentiary system managed to stage coordinated protests using only the cellphones they'd bought from guards. So it remains to be seen whether websites such as 99ers.net or layofflist.org that have recently been initiated among the unemployed can also become the basis for collective action, as the Internet has in the global justice movement.
The problem of how to bring people together is sometimes made easier by government service centers, as when in the 1960s poor mothers gathered in crowded welfare centers or when the jobless congregated in unemployment centers. But administrators also understand that services create sites for collective action; if they sense trouble brewing, they exert themselves to avoid the long lines and crowded waiting areas that can facilitate organizing, or they simply shift the service nexus to the Internet. Organizers can try to compensate by offering help and advocacy off-site, and at least some small groups of the unemployed have been formed on this basis.
Second, before people can mobilize for collective action, they have to develop a proud and angry identity and a set of claims that go with that identity. They have to go from being hurt and ashamed to being angry and indignant. (Welfare moms in the 1960s did this by naming themselves "mothers" instead of "recipients," although they were unlucky in doing so at a time when motherhood was losing prestige.) Losing a job is bruising; even when many other people are out of work, most people are still working. So, a kind of psychological transformation has to take place; the out-of-work have to stop blaming themselves for their hard times and turn their anger on the bosses, the bureaucrats or the politicians who are in fact responsible.
Third, protesters need targets, preferably local and accessible ones capable of making some kind of response to angry demands. This is, I think, the most difficult of the strategy problems that have to be resolved if a movement of the unemployed is to arise. Protests among the unemployed will inevitably be local, just because that's where people are and where they construct solidarities. But local and state governments are strapped for funds and are laying off workers. The initiatives that would be responsive to the needs of the unemployed will require federal action. Local protests have to accumulate and spread — and become more disruptive — to create serious pressures on national politicians. An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union, or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England in response to the prospect of greatly increased school fees.
A loose and spontaneous movement of this sort could emerge. It is made more likely because unemployment rates are especially high among younger workers. Protests by the unemployed led by young workers and by students, who face a future of joblessness, just might become large enough and disruptive enough to have an impact in Washington. There is no science that predicts eruption of protest movements. Who expected the angry street mobs in Athens or the protests by British students? Who indeed predicted the strike movement that began in the United States in 1934, or the civil rights demonstrations that spread across the South in the early 1960s? We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom — and then join it.
Frances Fox Piven is on the faculty of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the author, most recently, of Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America.