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Back to the Future: A Blueprint for Progressives to Take Back Our Country by Large-Scale Organizing of the Unemployed

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In January 1932, James Renshaw Cox, a Catholic priest from Pittsburgh, led his "army"of 25,000 unemployed workers from western Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. They demanded that Congress and the Hoover Administration create a massive public works programs and make the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share of taxes by raising inheritance tax.

After organizing the largest demonstration in our nation's history up to that time, Cox leveraged that massive support in the electoral arena, unlike some of today's radical activists including many in the Occupy movement who eschew politics and the ballot box. He founded the Jobless Party to advocate for labor unions and government-funded public works projects. Having built a political base in major cities, Cox, the party's presidential nominee, withdrew from the race and threw this support behind Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1932 election.

Thanks initially to grassroots organizing by communists and socialists (lest we forget, major agents of progressive change in early 20th century, pre-McCarthyist America), Unemployed Councils -- formal organizations of unemployed workers -- were springing up all across the country. Using strategies akin to those of organizing guru Saul Alinsky, they fought evictions and helped workers get assistance by confronting relief agency bureaucrats, thus building a political activist base for pioneering government reforms such as federally administered public works programs and unemployment insurance.

In her January 2011 Nation article, "Mobilizing The Jobless," Frances Fox Piven, a leading scholar of social movements, notes that, "Mass protests might change the president's posture if they succeeded in pressing him hard from his base, something that hasn't happened so far in this administration." The Unemployed Councils were positioned to do exactly that in response to FDR's admonition to a group of reformers to "make me do it."

Our current unemployment rate is 8%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the figure goes up to 14% if those Americans who are no longer actively searching for jobs and those working part time not by choice are included. This leaves millions of citizens, many of them recent college graduates, with the time and talent to help organize and participate in a major movement.

The New York Times reports that 11 state legislatures, including the politically crucial state of Florida, have passed laws reducing levels and/or duration of unemployment benefits, and that federal job training money is drying up. The rejection of benefits for thousands of unemployed workers could make unemployment offices recruitment stations for the movement. These workers could fuel state- and nation-wide organizing campaigns to overturn these reactionary laws and cuts.

Common Cause (full disclosure: I am on their staff), True Majority and other organizations have cracked the code and turned the diversity and dispersion of the web, seen by some as a barrier to successful organizing, into a tool for both on-line and on the ground organizing. With sufficient resources, they could use targeted social media to engage hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers, and help them understand that unemployment is driven by governmental political and economic policies heavily influenced by corporate donations and lobbying aimed at helping corporations maximize profit without regard to the well-being of working people.

As Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us, poverty and unemployment are not the result of a character flaw. Many of the unemployed have been convinced otherwise -- that they are responsible for their lack of a job, and that change must come from within.

In Herding Donkeys, Ari Berman, contributing writer for The Nation magazine, describes how the Obama campaign adopted Howard Dean's "house party" strategy that enabled people to share their experiences in dealing with the health care system and financial challenges. By helping people link the personal and the political, the meetings turned their angst and self-blaming into political action.

The newly unemployed often turn to their religious institutions for financial and moral support. Organizations could be built in local congregations. This could help return the focus of some religious institutions to social justice rather than on the trampling of women's reproductive rights.

The upcoming election provides an opportunity to leverage organizational strength. There are dozens of swing congressional districts with high unemployment rates. Organized workers could confront incumbents and challengers, demanding pledges to support legislation with short-term and long-term impact. Registering the newly unemployed to vote could help counter the millions that the Koch brothers and other reactionary one-percenters are spending on voter suppression.

Creating and sustaining a major national movement of unemployed workers is all about scale. Foundations and wealthy individuals, including the Democracy Alliance, should nurture organizations like the National Employment Law Project, UCubed (organized by the International Association of Machinists) and the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, already working with unemployed workers. They should provide progressive organizations with the funding needed to build a major national movement. More unions need to focus on organizing the unemployed. When these workers get jobs, unions will be strengthened by this built in, experienced and loyal base.

Republicans in the Senate once again thumbed their noses at unemployed Americans by threatening to filibuster the Obama administration's Buffett Rule, which would have provided billions of dollars in tax revenues that could have been used for job creation. Programs that help the unemployed are under constant attack by Republican-controlled U.S. House and state legislators.

A national movement of unemployed workers with strong, active local chapters is our best hope to, in the spirit of FDR,"make Congress do it" or elect people who will. It should be progressives' most important priority.

(Views expressed by the author are his own, not those of his employer.)

Not for profit executive Gary Ferdman helped organize the Rhode Island Workers Association in the early 1970's.