06/03/2010 02:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

ENDA Postmortem: Do Americans Care About Jobs Anymore?

With a semi-compromise set to pass to repeal the gay ban in the military (DADT), we can't expect anything to be done to eliminate job discrimination against LGBT people. Nancy Pelosi recently promised to make DADT a "memory" by Christmas of this year, but declined to give any sort of timeline for ENDA, the bill that would outlaw LGBT discrimination in places of work. With not much time to go before midterms and mark-ups (let alone votes) not even scheduled in the House and Senate, it's dead until 2011.

Lest we forget: ENDA not passing in the 111th Congress is an epic failure of the Democratic Party. This bill should have been easy. Gallup's most recent national poll on sexual orientation job protections showed 89% of America supported our right to work. Even conservative bastions produced great polling numbers - Utah supports LGBT job protections 66-25, good enough numbers that even a far-right Republican like Orrin Hatch could say he's voting for it just to represent his constituents (can you imagine a Republican voting for something liberal instead of just Democrats voting conservative for that reason?).

For Americans, this was a done deal. Just as people found Rand Paul suggestion that businesses should be allowed to refuse service to black customers ridiculous, most Americans think that LGBT people should be judged by their work, not their sexualities or gender identities. With the House and Senate controlled by Democrats and a Democrat in the White House, doing the right thing should have been easy.

But it wasn't. This bill didn't pass, and it wasn't for a lack of want from the LGBT community. For the past year LGBT people have been calling and writing their representatives asking them to pass this bill. Activists playing along at home targeted undecided votes and kept their own lists of who supported ENDA and who didn't, and they found majorities in both the House and the Senate. And yet the bill never came for a vote.

So, as with any huge failure, there's huge speculation on why it happened. Joe Mirabella and Bil Browning blame poor messaging and a lack of strategy from gay nonprofits on ENDA. True, they definitely dropped the ball here. Becky Juro points out that straight media, specifically MSNBC, preferred to cover the much more sexy and bright and shiny gay issue: DADT (I don't watch TV so I wouldn't know, although print and online straight media's coverage of ENDA was rare and terrible). And Jillian Weiss, America's premiere ENDA blogger, blamed the gay nonprofits' strategy to focus on formal discrimination, like marriage bans and gay military ban, for the past ten years.

All of those pieces fall into this puzzle. No huge failure like this happens for any single reason, of course, and I'd like to offer another piece: job protections seems like an anachronism because our rapidly changing economy has left so many people without jobs to protect.

And I'm not just talking about the recent rise in unemployment. No, even people who have had jobs for the past decade haven't had jobs like my grandparents had jobs. The idea of having the same employment all one's life to retirement isn't even a memory for my parents' generation. People float from job to job more that they used to, and saying that you're "between jobs" is entirely believable in this "flexible economy."

While many people still have salaried full-time positions, lots of us cobble together incomes from freelancing, temping, pseudo-self-employment, part-time, and seasonal work. Robert Reich discussed the rise of self-employment in 2009 in the NY Times yesterday, or people who lose their full time positions and go back to doing the same work for a temping agency at a reduced salary, with fewer benefits, and no job security, but if I remember correctly from Naomi Klein's No Logo, that was already taking over the economy in the 80's and 90's.

And that last one's the important one here: no job security. If you lose your job because you're black or gay or Jewish, it's not like the job promised anything more than a few months work as it was. How can someone challenge discrimination when they can't prove that they've lost all that much?

For example, I have a friend who worked two summers at a summer camp and came out to his coworkers halfway through the second year. He got excellent reviews from his supervisor, but he was told he wasn't wanted the third year. Everyone else was invited back, and everyone else was straight (or at least saying they were). But he never had a contract for that third year's work, so how could he prove discrimination?

This works into the larger apathy many gay people show towards ENDA. Ann Rostow, a columnist for the SF Bay Times, had this to say about LGBT employment protections:

But it is significant, since the topics in a State of the Union are carefully chosen. I'm encouraged that the President decided to focus on the military ban rather than the insipid Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which is now pending in both houses of Congress. When I say "pending," I mean that the bill has been introduced and heard in some committees or something. I don't mean that it is about to pass or even scheduled for a vote. ENDA has been kicking around since 1994, and it's about as useful to 21st century gay rights as a Betamax player.

Surely she can't think that anti-gay job discrimination is over. We know it isn't. Study after study has shown that gay men make upwards of 30% less than straight men after factors like education are controlled for. Gay and lesbian families are more likely than straight families to live in poverty.

What's more, about 80% LGB people are in the closet in some part of their lives, which I'd imagine includes quite a few workplaces. Think about how dismal those employment and earning statistics would be if all of us came out (that is, if we all shared as much personal information on the job as straight people do - talking about what we did over the weekend, mentioning our partners and boyfriends and girlfriends, etc.). Too bad most of us are still, in 2010, too afraid to be out everywhere. Just last week Daytona's gay paper straight-washed its cover because advertisers were concerned that people would think that they were gay.

Honestly, what I think Rostow's pronouncement on ENDA refers to isn't the status of LGB people in the workplace, but the status of workers' rights in American politics. When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, losing a job was a big deal. And people actually believed that everyone person had a right to work and earn a decent living, and that the government had a duty to provide jobs when the private sector couldn't and ensure that people had enough to work to make a decent living.

That's gone in this brave, new economy. Consider this recent article from liberal economist Brad Delong:

Washington, D.C. was in a panic. With high unemployment perceived as a genuine national emergency, the Federal Reserve embarked on a policy of massive monetary ease. The Reagan administration promised that the deficits created by its 1981 tax cuts and increased defense spending were the recipe for putting America back to work. Everybody had a plan to reduce unemployment. And every lobbyist or speculator with a scheme unrelated to jobs recast his pet project as a magic unemployment-reducing bullet.

Today, the unemployment rate is kissing 10 percent. Global financial markets are sending us a message that the excess demand for high-quality financial assets is growing again.

Yet, unlike 1983, there is no sense of urgency in Washington.[...]

But whenever I wander the halls of Washington these days, I can't help but think that something else is going on--that a deep and wide gulf has grown between the economic hardships of Americans and the seeming incomprehension, or indifference, of courtiers in the imperial city.

Have decades of widening wealth inequality created a chattering class of reporters, pundits and lobbyists who've lost their connection to mainstream America? Has the collapse of the union movement removed not only labor's political muscle but its beating heart from the consciousness of the powerful? Has this recession, which has reduced hiring more than it has increased layoffs, left the kind of people who converse with the powerful in Washington secure in their jobs and thus communicating calm while the unemployed are engulfed in panic? Are we passively watching an unrepresented underclass of the long-term unemployed created before our eyes?

If they can't get worked up about job creation for straight people, how are they going to care about job protection for LGBT people?

While it's easy to write off some of the people who don't care about labor protections in the media as rich, pampered millionaires (many are), I doubt Rostow is on a multi-million dollar a year contract like certain MSNBC pundits. If she's like other columnists at medium-sized, non-national newspapers, she works on some sort of non-full time contract, paid by the column or in some other not-real-job scheme. If she loses that work because of her race, sexuality, or other identity status, it's not like she'd have much of a case.

ENDA seems like an anachronism to us not because we believe that homophobia is over (HA!), and not because it provides so few protections it should have been passed in the 90's (notice how it wasn't), it's because our entire economy has changed to the point where having a job to protect seems quaint.

In the meantime, we've been spoon-fed conservative ideology for so long now that we've actually started to believe that filing a law suit if you get fired is a bad thing, that people who don't have jobs are just lazy people, that we can all be rich and climb the ladder so we should take our lumps while we're at the bottom (even if we're there all our lives), and that the purpose of employment is to enrich an employer, that workers demanding anything is just plain greedy.

We've come to accept that we don't deserve decent employment at a decent wage and that the only rights we have are the ones that don't cost money. That's exactly the message the owning class wants the rest of us to accept, since it doesn't just keep ENDA from being passed (a minor distraction), it keeps workers under control, labor cheap, and profit margins wide for investors. A population is easier to exploit if they don't know that they can demand better treatment.

That's one side of the equation, why we accept the ruling elite's lack of care about our joblessness, or the fact that we have to stay closeted on the job in order to keep our jobs. The other side is why they don't care, or why they care so much less than they used to. Part of that is because, obviously, we don't force them too. But it's also because of the widening gap between rich and poor, with wages dropping for part of America and wealth rising for another part. Guess which of John Edwards's two Americas has our politicians' ears.

There's no other way to explain our politicians:

Many Democrats also are scrutinizing emergency spending on the economy. [Rep. Kathy] Dahlkemper [(D-PA)], facing a well-funded Republican car dealer in the blue-collar district she seized from the GOP in 2008, said businesses back home complain that they want to start hiring but are getting few applicants because Congress has repeatedly extended unemployment benefits.

"Now, whether that's true or not, I'm still trying to decipher," she said. "But I think it's something we really need to look at."

Question: Is Dahlkemper on acid or is she just stupid? Because I want to know how to make fun of her for saying that 10% of the American workforce is living it up on $1000/month unemployment checks so much that they just won't take all the wonderful jobs being offered to them.

Of course, it's most likely neither. She's probably fairly smart and clean, but just so completely out of contact and out of touch with working class Americans that she really thinks that we might be lazy sacks of shit. Who knows, you know? Just have to look into it.

And she's definitely not alone. The people who run this country are insulated from working class Americans because they get their campaign cash mostly from people who can donate large sums, and the people who don't donate don't have much recourse other than to vote for a Republican, who are even worse. Lobbyists who visit them are well-paid and insulated themselves. Their families are doing just fine, and their friends come from the same economic class. These people don't get it because there's no one to explain it to them.

The same goes for the people who fund large LGBT nonprofits. While it's easy to point the finger at Joe or HRC or any number of high-profile people running these orgs, it's mostly just a distraction from the fact that they're working for their big donors, and people who are able to donate big time to those big orgs tend not to care much about job discrimination. They see it as just another gay right, somehow working into the big gay agenda but nothing to make one's blood boil. They're looking for their own meat and potatoes - tax breaks and partnership recognition - and for large symbols of inclusion, like DADT repeal.

Again, it's not just a problem in LGBT politics. Advocates of the working class is wondering why their party and their movement is being controlled by people who don't particularly care about working Americans. Why was health care reform a hollow shell of what the left wanted for American workers? Why didn't the Employee Free Choice Act even come up for a vote? Why was last year's stimulus package half the size economist thought it needed to be? Why is getting another one passed like squeezing blood out of a stone, when Congress has no trouble bailing out banks and funding the never-ending wars in the Middle East and Central Asia?

We Democrats and liberals and leftists and left-of-center independents all united for different reasons over the last decade, and now that we're in charge, we're looking at each other and realizing we don't really have much in common.

I don't know how to overcome all this lack of care. But if it's any consolation to LGBT people, it's not just us.