In the political theater exhibited last December where 13 months of unemployment extensions were linked to continuing tax breaks for the rich, a significant issue was left out of the drama, though it directly impacts the lives of millions. That is the fate of those who have become known as the 99ers.
The 99ers are those who have not been able to find a job, though they have exhausted all their employment benefits. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits peaked from November 2008 to May 2009. Ninety-nine weeks later those still unemployed had exhausted their benefits and disappeared from the official unemployment statistics. They no longer have a social safety net to land in and crawl out of.
Their numbers and continuing growth are staggering, and their desperate situation effects all working class Americans -- employed and unemployed. The fact that their fate was left unaddressed last December, while the economic top one percent were allowed hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks, says a lot about the political priorities of those who set policy in this country and whose voices they listen to.
Long-term joblessness has been an especially pronounced problem in the Great Recession. Those out of work for longer than six months make up 45.9 percent of all those unemployed. Those out of work for over a year make up 23 percent. This situation is not improving. For every job there are still a minimum of five workers competing to get it. According to the Federal Reserve's extended forecast, the unemployment rate in 2011 will not go below nine percent, and in 2012 it will remain at eight percent or higher.
This bleak outlook is all the more difficult for the 99ers since employers frequently use a long period of unemployment as a reason not to hire workers. It has been estimated that there are over two million 99ers. By the end of 2011, this number is expected to increase by four million, with the peak month for unemployment benefit cutoffs occurring in April.
With the fate of so many up in the air, we are seeing the development of another storm within the hurricane of the Great Recession. If allowed to go ignored on a national level, it will have destructive consequences for society as a whole.
For the 99ers themselves it will result in grinding poverty with little hope of escape. Their families will also be pulled into this mess since, according to the President's Council of Economic Advisers, 40 percent of the long-term unemployed are the sole household income earners.
The cutoff of so many benefits will throw up another obstacle to the distant possibility of an economic recovery. This is because people on unemployment immediately put their money back into the economy to pay bills and buy basic necessities, unlike the economic elite who are hoarding trillions of dollars in profits. By cutting off the ability to buy these goods for millions, there will be a damaging effect on job creation because of decreasing demand.
All workers will be impacted by the situation the 99ers face. What we are seeing is the potential development of a new large layer of the permanently unemployed. This new layer will be used by big business as a threat to those who have jobs in order to downsize wages, degrade their working conditions, and discourage union organizing.
Prospects for Help
The dire circumstances of the 99ers and the problems this creates for American workers are too massive to completely ignore. There has been some talk in Congress of extending unemployment benefits for the 99ers. This is referred to as adding a V Tier to the unemployment benefit's schedule. According to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a bill for this will be debated in Congress this March.
The passage of such a bill is unlikely at this point, however. Having extended the Bush tax cuts for the rich, the majority of those in Congress are now wringing their hands over the deficit this measure greatly enlarged. While there is always more money for Wall Street, when it comes to main-street and the 99ers, the necessary funds are mysteriously unavailable.
Working people and the unemployed cannot rely on the politicians to get the change we need. We can only rely on our own collective strength. That is, we need to organize and mobilize as a united, massive, powerful force that cannot be ignored by those more intent to do Wall Street's bidding. The creation of unemployment benefits itself was the result of such a social movement in the 1930s. By looking at this history, we can begin to see a hopeful future.
During the Great Depression, the first mobilization for government relief for the jobless happened on March 6, 1930 in New York City. 500,000 came out despite of the brutal treatment dished out by the club-wielding police. In October, they mobilized at City Hall again and this time, despite more beatings and arrests by the police, walked away with the city granting $1 million in additional relief (roughly $13 million in today's terms).
Had the advocates for relief limited their approach to lobbying the city government to "do the right thing," they may have received a million promises, but not a dime would have found its way into the pockets of the jobless. By mobilizing in a massive way the organizers of these demonstrations put into action a display of collective power that the politicians had to reckon with.
This approach began to be repeated in countless cities across the country as well as taken up on a national level. Demonstrations of 100,000 were not uncommon and sometimes much larger. Hundreds of unemployed councils were organized to more effectively struggle for their demands. Through these efforts, the political environment that had for years been dominated by Wall Street at the expense of workers, was beginning to shift.
Though there were important victories, the relief won was still a drop in the bucket compared to the vast misery created by the Great Depression. By 1934 the tactic of mass mobilizations helped to create the conditions and organization for more powerful actions such as large strikes, sit-ins, and general strikes. The demand for unemployment relief began to be combined with demands for full employment, the strengthening of union rights, and the creation of a social safety net. These demands linked the interests of the employed and unemployed and saw results in swelling picket lines and community support for sit-ins. Through mass direct action workers were challenging the power of Wall Street and the political establishment that served their interests.
It was this potentially revolutionary movement that forced President Roosevelt's hand. In 1935 he pushed through the National Labor Relations Act, which provided federally recognized protection of union rights, and the Social Security Act, which created unemployment insurance and formed the foundation of the social safety net we have today. He also launched the Works Progress Administration that employed millions of workers and helped to build the country’s infrastructure.
When Roosevelt came into office, he did not even hint at the remotest interest in taking such far-reaching measures. He could not because these measures came at the expense of Wall Street's profits - and Wall Street was organized, main-street was not. However, as a result of the largest grass roots movement this nation has ever seen, Roosevelt was compelled to do what he had previously considered impossible.
As in the 1930s, today we must organize in a way that creates unity between the employed and unemployed. To start, we can organize the largest possible union-led demonstrations to realize this unity in the streets. Educating and agitating on demands for economic relief for the 99ers and a jobs-creation program funded by raising Wall Street's taxes, would help to rally the numbers to make an impact. We must not be distracted by those who wish to dilute these demands by arguing that they are impossible, given the current political climate. It is that political climate that must be changed and this will not happen unless workers unite around their own needs and aspirations. The history of the 1930s demonstrates that when workers join into a movement representing their own interests, what is considered impossible can be made possible.
Mark Vorpahl is a union steward as well as an anti-war and Latin American Solidarity activist. He can be reached at Portland@workerscompass.org.