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Working In These Times

Thursday, Mar 4, 2010, 6:00 am

A Union for the Unemployed? ‘UCubed’ Tries to Organize Jobless in Internet Age

BY Micah Uetricht

UCubed's logo.   (Image courtesy UnionOfUnemployed.com)

The daily barrage of heartbreaking unemployment statistics has become so commonplace it almost ceases to shock. The headlines never deliver good news: despite a supposed tentative rebound for the economy as a whole, joblessness is still rising, with 15 million Americans officially without work—6.3 million of which haven't worked for over six months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And a recent Gallup poll shows 61 percent of the underemployed aren't even hopeful they'll find work within a month.

But a new effort aimed at uniting the out-of-work, called Ur Union of the Unemployed, or UCubed, has a message for jobless citizens burned by the brutal economy: don't mourn, organize. A project of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), UCubed's goal is to bring together and empower the unemployed to demand an economic recovery that benefits them.

"We're trying to connect unemployed people with one another to eliminate the sense of isolation that comes with being unemployed," IAM spokesman Frank Larkin said, "and to give people the means to be activists."

The union launched the project after seeing 30,000 members lose their jobs after the recession hit in late 2007. While the economy appears to be recovering on paper, Larkin says an emphasis on the stock market's numbers "dilutes the urgency unemployed people feel."

"Entire communities are suffering while champagne corks are popping because the Dow is over ten thousand again," he observed. "Our economy is about more than repairing the financial industry. This project is designed to raise the profile of the unemployed" who have been left out of this recovery.

But without workplaces to organize, how does UCubed work?

The group organizes people online and in their communities, by zip codes. When a given area has six people signed up, that area has a "cube." Once members are connected, they can begin fighting together. Larkin cites 276 such cubes in 41 states and the District of Columbia—and says the numbers are growing by the day.

He acknowledges that competing for the ears of politicians with monied interests will be difficult, but not impossible. "We have what a lot of other well-funded interests don't have: actual numbers," he says, arguing for the importance of organized, angry unemployed citizens in an election year.

Beyond connecting the jobless, UCubed's plans for actions in communities and beyond the Internet are not clear. But the organization has rallied support online for legislation such as an increase in the maximum allotment of food stamp benefits and a new jobs bill—which is a must, according to Larkin.

"Even people who say the recession is over will admit that a jobs recovery is the key to a real economic recovery," he says.

As might be expected, the organization was incensed at Sen. Jim Bunning's (R-Ky.) recent one-man blockade of extending unemployment benefits.  (Bunning faced a barrage of angry criticism from UCubed, Democrats and even fellow Republicans, and eventually caved.)

Vanessa Tait, author of the book Poor Workers Unions, sees promise in UCubed's efforts. It makes sense for the unemployed and employed to fight together, she argues, because they share mutual interests.

"By organizing jointly and supporting each other, both unemployed and employed workers benefit from the defense of fair wages and working conditions, as well as social programs like unemployment insurance, welfare, health insurance, childcare and maternity benefits," she said.

Tait chronicles the long history of such organizing in her book, and says many unions, including the United Autoworkers and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, did significant organizing among the unemployed. In the 1934 Toledo, Ohio, general strike, thousands of jobless citizens joined striking workers in a pitched battle with the National Guard that eventually ended in victory. One of ACORN's first campaigns was the Unemployed Workers' Organizing Committee in 1970s Arkansas; the Rhode Island Workers' Association fought for and won increased benefits and rights for the unemployed in the 1970s and 80s while linking such struggles to low-wage workers. These fights have the potential to diversify and strengthen the labor movement.

But these past efforts were community-based. Can an online movement of the unemployed take off in the United States?

"UCubed is clearly taking smart notes from the growth of social networking sites and Internet-based groups like MoveOn.org," Tait observed. "But will the site's members someday take the leap from online activism to march on Washington, or send squads of UCubers to local strike lines? If so, it might have the ability to help mobilize the unemployed as part of the labor movement, which still needs to go beyond emails and social networking to be most effective."

Micah Uetricht is an In These Times contributing editor. He is an assistant editor at Jacobin and has written for The Nation, Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Salon, and the Chicago Reader, and the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (Verso/Jacobin Books, March 2014). Perhaps most importantly, he is also a proud former In These Times editorial intern. Follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht or contact him at micah.uetricht [at] gmail.

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