Street Heat Now Required, But Victimized Jobless Still (Mostly) Quiet

Roger Bybee

In the face of still-growing economic polarization and corporate misconduct, labor’s most effective response to the bailout of Wall Street and the sellout of the working class remains the Republic Doors and Windows occupation in Chicago in December 2008.

Despite the best efforts of the United Radio Electrical and Machine workers union to spread the Republic example, somehow no prairie fire of rebellion was ignited among working families and the jobless. Seemingly, the smallest spark would have immediately lit up the dry kindling created by Wall Street-caused layoffs, permanent job losses due to offshoring, unprecedented wage cuts and a rising tide of home foreclosures.

But while the primary victims of the recession have been relatively quiescent over the past two years, the fear of falling into the pit of economic insecurity fueled a fast-growing Tea Party movement that has often blamed the jobless for their plight and deployed slogans like re-distribute my work ethic, not my money.”

The fears of the suburban and rural middle class touched off a powerful movement on the Right that amazingly re-legitimated the badly-discredited George W. Bush policies of deregulating banking and corporate behavior and handing out huge new tax cuts for corporations earning record profits and the ultra-rich already sitting on a record share of the nation’s income. Some of us had naively thought those policies were permanently dead.

However, the lack of effective progressive activism isn’t confined to purely economic issues. Progressive forces seem demoralized, disoriented, and demobilized by the Obama presidency.

Even the spectacular failure of deregulatory policies manifested in the huge BP oil-rig explosion killing 11 workers and spewing millions of barrels of oil in the Gulf failed to stem the tide of irrational antagonism toward holding corporations accountable. Despite the enormity of this environmental crime jeopardizing the Gulf’s life-sustaining capacity for untold decades, there was no upsurge of infuriated activism, in my observation, that was commensurate with the scale of BP’s permanent damage to the nation’s environment.

A visible, audible progressive response seemingly didn’t take place. (See a slightly different view here.)

Similarly, the colossal level of corporate irresponsibility and economic injustice in America is glaringly obvious. The U.S. actually boasts a worse level of income inequality than now-exploding Egypt, ranking 42nd globally) than the economic inequities helping to propel the protests in Egypt, which ranks 90th.


So [in the U.S.], where are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs? ” asks Frances Fox Piven, the brilliant and witty author, activist, and analyst of labor and other social justice movements, in a January 15 Nation piece called Mobilizing the Unemployed.”

(Piven’s article calling for a disruptive new social movement required considerable courage on her part, as’ Glenn Beck’s obsessive on-air attacks against the 78-year-old professor have triggered countless death threats against her, necessitating heightened security measures.).

Piven notes that 15 million are officially jobless and 11.5 million people have given up the futile search for work or settled for part-time or temporary work. But the emergence of a powerful movement among these 26.5 million people faces major barriers.

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.

The provision of unemployment compensation and related services increasingly avoids large concentrations of deeply-unhappy people at government offices. As Piven has observed from years of experience working with groups like the National Welfare Rights Orgnization,

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.

Second, the jobless must fully come to grips with their painful, esteem-robbing situation:

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.

…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, the jobless lack direct access to federal centers of power that could provide employment programs and expansive economic policies, representing, in Piven’s words, the most difficult” of the strategic challenges that organizers face:

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.


If President Obama didn’t like the polite complaints of the professional Left” over issues like a public option in healthcare reform, he surely won’t like the emergence of a disruptive social movement, especially in his new post-Nov. 2 incarnation. As David Bromwich acidly commented,

Obama now speaks in strings of sentences like these: The stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.” The stock market, it would seem, plus corporate profits equals the economy: an odd equation to hear from a Democrat.

With that mindset now guiding economic policy, only street heat” by the jobless and labor can threaten Democratic Party unity and win badly-needed concessions and policy changes for the long-term unemployed.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
Brandon Johnson
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Get the whole story: Subscribe to In These Times magazine.