Karl Marx’s famous phrase spoke of the unemployed as the “industrial reserve army.” His argument was plain. Creating greater unemployment was a key tool in giving employers the upper hand in forcing down wages and disciplining workers. I can still vividly remember a typical call-and-response from my early organizing days. When I would run into a colleague who was between organizing jobs, I would ask what they were doing these days. The answer: “I’m in the army.” Caught off guard in the beginning, I’d reply, “Really?” to which the answer would be, “Yes, the vast army of the unemployed.” It wasn’t funny, but we would laugh anyway. The joke somehow made being out of a job less personal and more systemic, and the fact that it seemed to have a reddish tint to the phrase made it all even richer in the fading decades of the Cold War.
What now on another US Labor Day?
The reserve army is indeed vast. Twenty million jobs were lost in March alone as the statistical unemployment rate jumped from 4.4% to 14.7%. With one-million new unemployment filers per week, we are now around thirty million unemployed with rates over 10% in record highs since the Great Depression. The world is in no better shape. In the European Union, fifteen million were unemployed as of June 2020, and the current unemployment rate is around 8%. Country to country, the stories are horrific and the numbers are incalculable in places like India and many African countries.
Reading Francis Fox Piven and Dick Cloward’s Poor Peoples’ Movements, it was always exhilarating to discover the work of the Unemployed Councils in the 1930s, their marches, rallies, anti-eviction fights, and demands for $35 per week and $5 per dependent. I can still vividly remember ACORN’s own efforts to organize unemployed workers, CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Act) workers, and youth job actions during the 1978 recession during the Carter presidency. We held sit-ins in Denver, organized rallies of over a thousand in Philadelphia, and faced arrests and police brutality in response to an action in New Orleans.
The Unemployed Councils thought they were harnessing the anger and laying the groundwork for the collapse of capitalism in the Great Depression. The Unemployment Act of 1920 established a benefit for unemployed workers. The Social Security Act of 1935 encouraged the states to establish individual unemployment insurance schemes that have led to the patchwork quilt of rates and benefits paid now. The Depression lingered at many levels until WWII, but the protests helped create the changes that last still.
In the Trump Recession, capitalism is barely cracking, and even a Google search can’t find evidence of mass protests of unemployed workers. At least, not yet. But why?
Now the government’s response to the pandemic job meltdown from almost statistical full employment to depression-scale numbers was radical in its own way. Not because of action on the streets. More because of fear in the White House and halls of Congress with an election looming and no hope for a cure to the coronavirus. Money stuffed a sock into mouths that might have roared with rage. Republican Senators and some corporations have yelled louder that the $600 supplemental unemployment benefits kept potential workers away from demanding abysmally low-waged jobs because they were getting more on unemployment than they did when they were working. Some justice there! In Europe, 60 million workers were paid supplements to prevent layoffs. The price was high, but governments bought labor peace.
Most of the US’s super-sized benefit payments have now ended. In Trump’s election desperation, some unemployed workers may get a supplemental $300 a week, and in some richer states, $400, but that’s a stopgap and a poor one for only five weeks. On this Labor Day, Congress is still divided over restoring larger supplemental payments either until the end of 2020 or the end of the pandemic, whichever comes later.
Did this experience legitimize the case for something like a guaranteed annual wage or a minimum survival standard in welfare benefits and work and unemployment support? Could that become the legacy of this disaster for workers, as the Social Security Act was for the Great Depression?
I doubt it.
In the 30s, workers and their families didn’t buy President Hoover’s excuses and “good times are around the corner” promises. They turned him out and ushered in the Roosevelt programs. Today, paradoxically, President Trump’s mishandling of this mess still rates him polling better than former Vice-President Biden in his ability to handle the economy. Perhaps workers, the unemployed, and others will go to the voting booth or the mailbox this November and turn Trump out in the same way. Perhaps not.
Even if they do, the lesson of history and all the great victories won for workers is clear. Unless workers vote with their feet as well as their ballots, significant change is unlikely to come. Until these forces come together as a vast army to push away the opposition, change is unlikely, and more pain and hardship is inevitable.
Juliet Schor and Samuel Bowles argued persuasively some time ago that workers’ internal calculations about the “cost of job loss” correlated better than unemployment rates with the incidence of strikes. Workers figure the price of action to achieve wage and security gains versus the risk of unemployment. That calculation should encourage action today, as we have masses of workers unemployed with forecasts of more furloughs and permanent layoffs to come. Statistical unemployment is already over 15% for Black workers and 18.5% for young people under 24. The cost of job loss for millions is now zero, while the gains for action are potentially huge.
Unemployed workers of the workers of the world unite! You have little to lose and a different world and economy to gain.
Wade Rathke, ACORN International