HOW FAR WILL WORKERS GO?
Bloomberg Businessweek|November 01, 2021
Along with the Great Resignation and #Striketober, the unemployed are fighting for reforms that could translate into lasting leverage
JOSH EIDELSON

AS PROTEST SYMBOLS GO, THE MARCHERS COULD HAVE DONE worse than sarcastic desserts. On the occasion of the Georgia labor commissioner’s birthday this summer, a few dozen unemployment activists arrived outside his office building in downtown Atlanta carrying, among other things, a fudge pie meant to resemble the one from The Help that was memorably made of poop. The chocolate held together reasonably well in the July heat, its symbolism straightforward. “We worked hard, we did what they told us to do,” said unemployed flooring sales person Lauren Crace, who was protesting in a floral blouse and ripped jorts. “And then we got shit on.”

Crace moved to Florida in 2019 to be closer to elderly in-laws, but because she made most of her income that year back in Georgia, that’s where she had to go to seek unemployment benefits after her son’s day care closed and her company laid her off. To figure that out, she spent a month on the phone with Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, including one day when she waited on hold for 10 hours. Then she spent another month wrangling with both states before she received support. Others fared worse, as she saw in a Facebook group she created that quickly swelled with Georgians in search of help. More than 9 million Americans lost their jobs to the coronavirus and got no help from Washington, according to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek review of federal and state data. “Everybody kind of got forgot about,” Crace says now.

American workers—the ones involuntarily benched during the pandemic and the ones who labored through it at great risk so others could stay fed or entertained or alive—are now doing their best to be impossible to ignore. Private-sector union members are authorizing strikes at a rate rarely seen in modern America, with more than 100,000 workers recently threatening or mounting work stoppages in health care, higher education, telecommunications, transportation, television, mining, manufacturing, music, metals, oil, carpentry, whiskey, and cereal. The internet dubbed October #Striketober.

Nonunion workers are voting with their feet as well, fueling a labor market reckoning that’s become known as the Great Resignation. On Oct. 12 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that an unprecedented 2.9% of the entire workforce, some 4.3 million people, quit their jobs in the month of August, even as the government was confirming it would nuke extra jobless benefits in hopes of forcing people to work.

And all of this is happening as the federal government wrangles over President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill. The legislation could transform the supply of child-care jobs and the penalties for union busting and, if Crace and her comrades get their way, make the biggest permanent changes to the country’s troubled unemployment system in decades.

It’s a moment with the flavor of 1945, the beginning of a period of massive strikes by what we now call “essential workers.” They unleashed grievances they’d bottled up while getting the country through World War II. Partly through a series of strikes that included 1 in 10 American workers, they ushered in a rare period where employees’ median pay rose hand in hand with their productivity. To recapture that sort of leverage, U.S. labor will need a movement that mobilizes enough people to force reforms.

Unemployment benefits are controversial because, even as stingy and unreliable as they are in the U.S., they give workers a little more leverage against bosses by making them a little less desperate to accept a mediocre offer. They also help people feed themselves while out of a job and help the economy avoid a downward spiral where no one’s getting hired because no money’s getting spent because everyone’s out of work.

Last year the immediacy and magnitude of the pandemic were compelling enough for both parties in Congress to get on board with emergency supplemental benefits of first $600 a week, then $300. That sense of urgency didn’t extend, however, to actually getting the money to millions of qualifying Americans who needed it, and this year, as spring turned to summer, 26 states announced they would end the extra benefits earlier than the federal government’s Labor Day cutoff. Protests among the unemployed have emerged throughout the country, too, in such places as the Las Vegas Strip, downtown New Orleans, and the U.S. Capitol.

At the time of the Atlanta demonstration, Georgia had already cut off supplemental benefits and nixed social distancing rules, but the local Labor Department office remained fenced off and closed to the public, as it has been since the beginning of the pandemic. Crace and the other protesters marched with signs saying “Let us in,” answered only by banners urging job seekers to check out the postings on the agency’s website. “This system has failed us,” Crace said.

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