“There used to be a sense that unemployment was rich soil for radicalisation and revolt,” labour historian Nelson Lichtenstein told the New York Times. “That was a motif in American history for a long time, but we don’t seem to have that anymore.”
America is seeing ‘the gravest job crisis’ since Roosevelt, but the budget deficit and not unemployment is dominating the political discourse. The jobless themselves are keeping quiet. “Unlike the hard-pressed in, say, Greece or Spain, the jobless in America seem, well, subdued”, the NYT observes.
One factor is that today’s unemployed are more dispersed, living in suburban areas. In the 1960s, the unemployed would organise around the welfare or unemployment offices (see also the classic Poor People’s Movements by Piven and Cloward – DK). Many of those offices have closed. Benefits are now handled by phone or online.
In the past, unions supported the unemployed workers’ movements, but today many unions are struggling for survival and do not have the resources for such activities. There are online efforts to organise the unemployed, such as UCubed, but these cannot take the place of organising in real life. And finally, some of the anger is being channelled by the Tea Party, who believe that benefits stimulate poor people to stay poor.
The article in the NYT concludes by saying that in the Great Depression, it took a while for the poor to mobilize. Many saw Roosevelt as an ally and only later became disillusioned. The paper hints that Obama, when he runs for re-election next year, may face similar disillusionment.
Image: The Single Men's Unemployed Association parading to Bathurst Street United Church. Toronto, Canada, ca 1930. Library and Archives Canada / Wikimedia