THE BLOG
10/03/2006 10:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Up, UP, and Away!

Maybe it was at the "ExecuTable" boot camp for job seekers that the idea first occurred to me. There, in a stuffy windowless meeting room in a Hampton Inn, our drill sergeant berated a dozen jobless white collar people for failing to exude the positive attitude that would guarantee them a comfortable landing in the job market. Never mind the economy or a corporate culture that views employees as "expenses"-- whether you rise or sink is all a matter of "personal responsibility."

Or maybe it was later, at a "Christian businessmen's" event, where job seekers were told that the secret to success lies in "getting right with the Lord," that I began to think: Every snake oil salesman and "prosperity preacher" is moving in on the battered white collar workforce, why not a real organization for them--democratic, grass-roots, secular or at least religiously tolerant, and aimed at solving real-world problems like job churning, lack of health insurance, and sudden downward mobility?

I don't do organizations, or so I thought. I'm an activist, sure, willing to travel to picket lines, labor and living wage rallies around the country. Just don't ask me to worry about by-laws and budgets; Robert's Rules of Order make me retch

But someone's got to do it, I kept thinking--without noticing that this was the same line of thought that had led me into Nickel and Dimed years ago. I walked into that project by recklessly telling a magazine editor that someone should do the "old-fashioned kind of journalism" and try living on entry-level wages. The editor had said "you" and posed me with an assignment I couldn't dodge. So too now with the white collar workers I met while working on Bait and Switch: If not me, who? If not now, when?

The mail I began to receive as soon as Bait and Switch was published ratcheted up the pressure. All right, this isn't Darfur - and nowhere near as compelling, to most good-hearted people, as the plight of chronically low-wage workers or those born into poverty. But the pain is real. You can see it in the studied affectlessness of the "over the hill" 50-year-old engineer or IT person, the carefully kept up appearance, the vulnerability to sudden tears. Or you find it in the 20-something baristas and assistant retail managers who are struggling to pay off their college loans and their rent for a group apartment, all the time wondering where they went wrong.

Their expectations have been betrayed, and when they reach out for help - at a networking event for example - they're likely to be told that they have only themselves to blame.

So in the fall of 05, I took two small steps: First, I met up with an old friend who was working at the DC headquarters of the Service Employees International Union, a union I respect for their organizing among low-wage workers and for their openness to new ideas. My friend liked the idea of reaching out to unemployed and underemployed white collar folks. We agreed that whatever we created couldn't be a union, because we were talking about people in many different occupations and workplaces, but unions could help with some start-up money and organizing skills.

Next, on the exhausting 20-city book tour for the hardcover Bait and Switch, I started passing around a legal pad at every bookstore event I spoke at. Then I'd wind up my remarks with an altar call: Who in the crowd would step forward and help organize a local group to provide support and advocacy for the unemployed, underemployed and anxiously employed?

Out of these lists of contacts I began to assemble--with more than a little help from my friends -- the nucleus of a new organization, and in April 05 we held a national meeting in a sagging hotel in the artsy section of Atlanta. Much of that gathering was devoted to sharing stories: the software writer who'd suffered a near-fatal heart attack under the pressure to hold onto his job, the underpaid 30-something nonprofit employee from Minneapolis, the freshly laid-off mortgage analyst from Fort Wayne, the corporate trainer from Tampa who's seen her income plummet over the years, and so on. But the stories needed telling, and when we emerged from our meeting room we had sketched out our new organization, United Professionals, or UP, devoted to networking, advocacy and, somewhere off in the future, services like legal advice and health insurance.

The next few months were spent creating a solid structure as a nonprofit, nonpartisan, corporation with by-laws and a board of directors. We brainstormed to come up with a stellar advisory board, including economists Jared Bernstein and Julianne Malveaux, sociologist Richard Sennett (author of The Culture of the New Capitalism), and Tamara Draut (author of Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead.) We roped in another old friend of mine, Indiana labor organizer Tom Lewandowski, to work on chapter-building. We voted in Chicago-based management consultant Bill Holland (author of Are There Any Good Jobs Left?) as Chairman of the Board, based on his consummate good sense.

On September 8, we were ready to emerge from our larval stage at a "launch party" in Washington DC. An overflow crowd turned out for our panel and snatched up our attractive blue and orange membership cards. We began to get press coverage - including an article in the New York Times--and visitors pouring into unitedprofessionals.org.

A few days later I ventured out on a book tour for the paperback edition of Bait and Switch. No longer organizationally challenged, this time I was frankly proselytizing for our new organization, and, what was especially wonderful - I was no longer doing it alone. In city after city, either UP founding members or brand new volunteers showed up at my bookstore events, collected email addresses, and announced the formation of local chapters. As of this moment, people in over 100 cities have come to our website and volunteered to build chapters in their areas.

What will we do? Well, that depends in part on the priorities of our growing membership. What we're thinking of so far includes:

  • Real networking and community building. Encouraging people to get together, discuss local issues, share stories and tips.
  • Advocacy on national issues: the need for universal (as opposed to employer-based) health insurance, a solid unemployment insurance system (unlike the current one, which covers only about a third of laid off people), ways of tackling the individual and family debt crisis (fairness in lending, college loan reform), and, of course, a living wage.
  • Services: We are working with other groups, such as the National Employment Lawyers Association (nela.org) and the Freelancers' Union (freelancersunion.org) to be able to offer free legal advice and, eventually, affordable health insurance to our members.

We hear all the time that the middle class is "under attack," and now it's time to fight back. If you can think of a better way than UP, be my guest. But for now it's the best approach we have. The dues are low - a dime a day or $36.50 a year - and the time investment as big or small as you want. So take some "personal responsibility - not only for yourself but for the future of America - and step up to the plate.