Battling Unemployment in the Great Recession and Its Aftermath: A Report to the EuroMemo Group from the National Jobs for All Coalition
Well before the economic crisis of 2008, the National Jobs for All Coalition (NJFAC), like the EuroMemo Group, was concerned about the problem of unemployment. With the onset of the Great Recession, the problem became more acute, and the solutions we had proposed when unemployment was much lower became all the more necessary. Official unemployment in August 2012 (latest date available) was still 8.1%, double the rate at the turn of the century. At that time, when unemployment was at its lowest in 30 years, unemployment was a chronic problem, even then afflicting millions of workers–13 million people were either officially unemployed, forced to work part-time or wanting a job but not actively looking for one. The current number is 27.5 million, and an additional 17 million, the working poor, are employed full-time but earning less than the meager four-person U.S. poverty level.
In 2007, just prior to the crash, the National Jobs for All Coalition proposed an active labor market policy consisting of a permanent, standby program of government job creation to employ all who remain jobless following a short period of unemployment. Relative to the size of the economy, public investment had declined sharply and was at only half its 1960s and 1970s level. There were huge unmet needs in the nation’s physical and social infrastructures that could be filled by a government employment program modeled on New Deal work programs of the Great Depression. Programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had saved millions of unemployed workers and their families from destitution and done much to improve the nation’s infrastructure and our quality of life for years to come. In 2007, we proposed such a program: Shared Prosperity and the Drive for Decent Work.  (It was still possible then to speak of “prosperity!”)
Response to the Jobs Crisis
When the crash came, NJFAC recognized that the program it had recently proposed in The Drive for Decent Work was more important than ever. At demonstrations, meetings and conferences during subsequent years we have handed out a leaflet (attached) that begins, WE HAVE A JOBS CRISIS and then asks, CAN WE DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS CRISIS? The answer:
Government can create useful jobs. Everyone knows that our roads need repair, our bridges are eroding, our children need more teachers, parents lack affordable child care, seniors lack elder care, millions lack adequate health care, and we must green our economy.
All of these needs can and should be met by the federal government. That’s what was done during the Great Depression of the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal put millions of the unemployed to work doing useful jobs that have made a lasting contribution to our country: roads, bridges, schools, libraries, housing, parks, arts, culture and much more.
In the years following the economic meltdown, NJFAC has promulgated the policy of direct job creation in a number of ways: organizing a national conference in New York City “To Create Living Wage Jobs for All, Meet Human Needs and Sustain the Environment”; co-sponsoring a Howard University Conference in Washington, DC on “Jobs and the Future of the U.S. Economy”; organizing monthly “First Friday” demonstrations in cities and towns around the country on the day when the Department of Labor announces the unemployment rate for the previous month; supporting an employment working group of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in their unsuccessful attempt to have OWS accept a “demand” for jobs for all; initiating a petition campaign in support of jobs for all; maintaining two websites that provide information on unemployment and related issues and that serve as resources for advocacy on behalf of job creation; and, perhaps most important, helping to craft the most ambitious job creation legislation pending in Congress and educating the public regarding this and other legislation that would begin to put a dent in the unemployment crisis.
At the initiative of NJFAC, more than 125 people from 50 organizations gathered in New York City in mid-November 2009 for a two-day conference. The diversity of participants was impressive. While most were from New York, they also traveled from Georgia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, California, Illinois, Ohio and elsewhere. Some lower-income people who attended were able to do so because the conference organizers raised money to pay for their expenses.
Participants spanned a broad range of constituencies and interests–labor, religious and faith-based organizations, academics, welfare rights advocates and environmentalists. NJFAC was joined in organizing by DC 37, AFSCME–New York City’s largest municipal workers’ union, the Presbytery of New York and the Healing of the Nations Foundation (headed by Rev. James Forbes, Senior Pastor Emeritus of New York’s famed Riverside Church). Taking a substantial role in the conference was the Chicago Political Economy Group, consisting of labor and community activists, academics, and others interested in political economic analysis and the development and advocacy of economic justice policies. CPEG has taken a leadership role in designing and promoting a financial transfer tax to pay for. job creation and related progressive programs.
Howard University Conference.
In the fall of 2010 NJFAC co-sponsored and participated in a conference hosted by the Economics Department of Howard University, Jobs and the Future of the U.S. Economy,at which social scientists and activists presented and debated policies and strategies for ending the jobs crisis. Howard University professors, Rodney Green and Haydar Kurban subsequently edited a special, forthcoming issue of the Journal of Black Political Economy based on papers delivered at the conference. Three of the articles are by NJFAC Executive Board members. On the succeeding day, an NJFAC contingent participated in a Washington March on behalf of jobs and peace sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the AFL-CIO, the national umbrella federation representing U.S. unions.
The National Jobs for All Coalition continues to participate in the annual Left Forum, the largest gathering in North America of the US and international Left. The Forum, held annually in New York City on a university campus and organized by academics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, convenes intellectuals and organizers to share perspectives, strategies, experience and vision. In 2012, NJFAC was a sponsor or co-sponsor with the Union of Radical Political Economists (URPE) of two forums: “Lessons of the New Deal,” and “The Struggle for Full Employment” (recorded on YouTube).
Our part-time Outreach Coordinator, Logan Martinez, based in Dayton, Ohio, establishes and maintains a network of supporters and contacts in nine states: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Texas. Through this network NJFAC promotes a national jobs program with First Friday actions. These have been held in 26 cities around the country, including Detroit, Chicago, Little Rock, Dallas, Albany, and Boston. In 2011, NJFAC was joined by representatives of labor, religious, women’s rights organizations and unemployed workers in a series of Â monthly First Friday vigils in front of the New York City office of U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. As the highest New York State federal office holder, we urged Senator Schumer to take our message of the need for direct job creation to Washington. The NJFAC outreach coordinator publishes a monthly e-newsletter, Jobs for All Updates, that is sent to over 1000 contacts and 200 organizations.
Advocating More and Better-Targeted Federal Action.
In 2009, soon after taking office, the Obama Administration mounted a $787 billion stimulus, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. According to an estimate by former Federal Reserve Board vice-chair Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, the stimulus and the bank bailout enacted in the closing months of the George W. Bush presidency, kept unemployment in the 10% range in 2010, rather than 16% where it would have risen without these government interventions. Nonetheless, Blinder held that we still had a “jobs emergency” and thus a need for “New Deal-style hiring of workers onto public payrolls.” [NY Times blog, 7/19/10]
The stimulus, though large, was reportedly less than what Christina Romer, then Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, recommended, but the chief problem was the failure to spend most of the money on direct job creation instead of on such measures as unproductive tax cuts. According to economist Philip Harvey of NJFAC, the stimulus saved or created four million jobs at a cost of $200,000 per job whereas direct job creation along the lines of New Deal work programs would have cost between $50,000 and $55,000 per job, assuming average wages and the costs of administration and materials. Â According to Harvey, that would have wiped out official unemployment!
NJFAC has played a part in encouraging legislation that focuses on the direct method of job creation. NJFAC vice chair Charles Bell has taken the lead in this effort. Bell has worked with the office of Representative John Conyers (Democrat, Michigan), a distinguished member of Congress and former Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, in crafting the Humphrey Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act, H.R. 4277. When first proposed by Representative Conyers, this bill really did not deserve the appellation, “full employment.” With grass roots support mobilized by Logan Martinez, our Outreach Coordinator, Bell influenced Representative Conyers and his staff to propose legislation that would create millions of “fast track jobs.” With money from a financial transaction tax, H.R. 4277 would establish a Full Employment and Training Trust Fund that would disburse funds until every American worker who wants a job could find one.
There are other less ambitious job creation bill that we have supported and are using for purposes of education and organization. At the request of Jobs for Justice (JWJ), a national network of coalitions advocating for the rights of working people, NJFAC prepared summaries of this legislation for distribution at a conference of thousands of JWJ members in Washington DC in the summer of 2011. Thanks to the initiative of NJFAC member Ed Rosario, two national unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement passed unanimously, resolutions in support of H.R. 4277 and other pending job creation bills in the House of Representatives and Senate. In the coming months, NJFAC will be working with other national and local organizations to gain support for the Conyers bill as well as other legislation that could lead us in the direction of jobs for all.
The Silent Unemployed.
Compared to unemployed workers in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, today’s victims of mass unemployment have been silent. Less than six months after Â the 1929 crash, there were demonstrations, rallies and marches in most major cities, some involving clashes with police.
Two related reasons are that unemployment was much greater in the early 1930s, rising to 25% of the work force in 1933, compared to the 10% high mark in the Great Recession. Moreover, today’s unemployment is mitigate by the frequency of two- earner families. Moreover, until 1933, there was virtually no federal aid to the unemployed. Today, by contrast, the U.S. welfare state, inadequate though it is, has provided food stamps to 45 million people, and Unemployment Insurance benefits were extended in duration and, to a lesser extent, increased in amount. However, the major programs serving them are threatened with cutbacks owing to policymakers’ obsession with a balanced budget.
Outside resources are important to the organization of low-income groups, particularly, and that missing ingredient is leftist organizations, especially the Communist Party, that were a strong presence and aid to the organization of unemployed councils in the 1930s. Democratic administrations, including those of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, need to be pushed by mass protest.
Education of the Public and Ourselves.
Soon after NJFAC began, in 1994, economist June Zaccone, a founding member of the Coalition, established and continues to manage the highly informative NJFAC website that is used by many scholars, students and activists (see www.njfac.org). Our first priority is to post monthly unemployment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, using the expanded definition of unemployment permitted by the data. The website has links to analysis of the meaning of the monthly numbers. Other materials relate to our broader mission, which includes wages, inequality, employment trends, and other issues, like Social Security that are linked to jobs at decent pay. In the website’s International section, there are over 60 links to International News and Resources, including the EuroMemo Group. The web site is supplemented by a listserv, GoodJobs [Sign up for it on our home page.]
Prior to founding NJFAC, a group of academics and activists got together in the mid-1980s Â to form New Initiatives for Full Employment. We were concerned that most progressives were not emphasizing the critical role of chronic unemployment in economic inequality and that some on the left were even denigrating the goal of full employment.Â We felt the need to study and understand the current feasibility and desirability of a full employment economy.
To aid this endeavor, the late Professor Sumner Rosen established the Columbia University Seminar on Full Employment (later Full Employment, Social Welfare and Equity).  Meeting monthly during the academic years since 1987, the Seminar has exposed us to new ideas and helped us to develop and expand ours. Though completely separate, the Seminar has served as a kind of think tank for our action on behalf of jobs for all, giving us the opportunity to learn from and hold discussions with such leading thinkers as Gösta Rehn, Jörg Huffschmid, William Vickrey and Joseph Stiglitz. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the seminar, we are planning a symposium that will explore Franklin Roosevelt’s Second or Economic Bill of Rights that began with “the right to a useful and remunerative job.” Roosevelt, in his last State of the Union Address in 1945, repeated this Economic Bill of Rights and referred to the right to work as “paramount.” We hope that some of our European colleagues will be able to join us in this symposium, and will be sending more information about it in the near future. We hope also to be able to be represented at future EuroMemo Group workshops.
 See Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, A Job for the Unemployed and Their Allies, New York, National Jobs for All Coalition, 2012, forthcoming.
 The Seminar co-chairs are Sheila Collins, Helen Lachs Ginsburg and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg.