Working In These Times
As Crisis Wears On, ‘UCubed’ Aims to Be Megaphone for Unemployed, and Ignored
“[N]o one is hiring for entry level jobs, temp services are taking advantage and not even finding steady positions for people, the wages are so low and college graduates are not finding work in their chosen fields...yet the politicians want to play the old "blame game"; it is sickening.” —unemployed woman on UCubed's Facebook page, April 27.
The Republican Party has collectively cast more than 8,000 votes against the interests of America’s unemployed workers, says Rick Sloan, director of the International Association of Machinists' (IAM) “UCubed” (“Ur Union of Unemployed”) program. The union started the initiative in 2007, as the recession began to hit.
Generally, GOP politicians have accompanied votes for public-sector cutbacks and against extended unemployment benefits with blame-the-victim vituperation directed at the jobless. The Democratic retort has been largely lackluster, Sloan says.
“n the crucial swing states, look at the raw numbers of the officially unemployed—it’s been larger than winning margin over the last several elections," he says. “The Democrats haven’t figured out that their voters are the ones being hammered,” he asserts. “A New York Times poll last fall showed that just 15 percent of the jobless are Republicans. Until Democrats figure out that they must speak to these folks... this is political sucide, as shown by the 2010 elections.”
Stepping into this void has been UCubed, a largely online effort which Sloan says aims to serves as “a megaphone for the jobless," both union and nonunion. The program tries to build a progressive framework for the jobless to interpret their plight, intensify pressure for a sweeping Works Progress Administration (the Depression-era jobs program launched by FDR), and motivate the unemployed to support candidates who are aligned with their economic interests.
In 2010, UCubed boasted 276 “cubes,” or local units, in 41 states. “We have grown dramatically in last six months, with 897 cubes with leaders and 4,750 job activists and 90,366 Facebook fans,“ Sloan enthuses. He says UCubed can claim the "largest union presence on Facebook."
“Our followers skew heavily female [55%], 61% are 35 or older, and we’ve got members in every state. We expect to go from 90,000 fans to 150,000 by Election Day.” Each fan represents another 300 readers, according to Facebook estimates, suggesting that U-Cubed’s Facebook reaches a total of 24 million people.
In contrast to unemployment organizing efforts of the 1930s, 1970s and 1980s stressing direct action, UCubed is focused on a broad educational effort using Facebook messages to steer the jobless in a consistently progressive direction despite their ongoing frustration.
“Our niche is a space that no one else is focusing on,“ explains Sloan. “We’ve figured out that the jobless of this generation are not like the jobless of the 1930s. There’s a pent-up fury that is omni-directional—they hate all politicians, feel they’ve all failed them.
“Nobody’s speaking for the unemployed, so we try,” he said. A key function is fighting the understandable cynicism, or “gallows humor, as Sloan puts it, about elected officials in both parties who have failed to address the pressing needs of the unemployed.
The urgent need to address the unemployment crisis has grown as U.S. economic growth has slowed slightly; GDP growth for the first quarter of the year was revised downward to 2.2 percent from 3 percent As Common Cause leader Gary Ferdman notes, the situation of the jobless continues to remain discouraging and precarious:
Our current unemployment rate is 8%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the figure goes up to 14% if those Americans who are no longer actively searching for jobs and those working part time not by choice are included…
The New York Times reports that 11 state legislatures, including the politically crucial state of Florida, have passed laws reducing levels and/or duration of unemployment benefits, and that federal job training money is drying up.
The unemployed continue to exist on a narrow precipice, hoping to avoid the “domino effect” of their joblessness leading to home foreclosure and bankruptcy. Less than 40 percent of the jobless now receive unemployment benefits, says Sloan. "The jobless have undergone a mass migration down the economic escalator.
“No one’s speaking to the unemployed except the Republicans, stoking that ice-cold fury," said Sloan, noting that conservative activists John McLaughlin and Hailey Barbour issued a strategy paper last week, based on focus groups, about how to tap the resentment of the jobless.
Facebook and the Internet are crucial means of reaching the jobless, Sloan believes. “They are hard to poll, because they don’t have phone lines any more, or they won’t pick up the phone if they suspect it’s a bill collector."
At this point, Sloan feels more certain about UCube's ability to influence the jobless through the Internet than by enlisting them in direct action. Many liberal political observers and strategists (like the author Frances Fox Piven; see here and here) are encouraged by the young and jobless people participating in Occupy demonstrations and hope to see much more direct action by the unemployed and poor. Sloan, however, is less optimistic about UCubed supporters taking that route. Most of the jobless remain socially isolated from each other and get connected to each other solely through the Internet, he says.
Moreover, many jobless people lack a tradition of collective action and also fear that they may be blackballed by employers if spotted at public demonstrations. “They want to go back to work, and are...reluctant to join [visible] organizations, to march, to be in the public square, because they know that photos of demonstration are being monitored, and scrutinized,” Sloan says. “I don’t see them linking up in mass numbers.”
But the jobless can be harnessed to press for an updated version of Roosevelt’s jobs plan—WPA 2.0—that would modernize the nation’s sagging bridges and roads, crumbling water systems and other infrastructure, like building a broadband Internet network across the nation.
The November election is a crucial arena where UCubed is determined to make a difference in reaching potential voters.
“The most effective action we can produce is getting people to cast a ballot 190 days from now,” Sloan says. “If [the jobless] see it in their self-interest to vote for a particular politician, they will do it. We’re trying to change the conversation."