Unemployment crisis shunted aside as austerity measures enacted

“America’s real crisis is not a debt crisis. “It’s an unemployment crisis” wrote Joe Nocera of the New York Times in a column about the job killing impact of austerity measures agreed to by Democrats and Republicans in order to lift the federal debt ceiling. However, Nocera’s message, an echo of earlier warnings by economists such as Dean Baker and Paul Krugman and business writer Doug Henwood, doesn’t seem to be getting much traction.

Republicans and Democratic leaders cling to the idea that all government can do is cut spending to protect bond holders and stand aside to let the free market work its magic. But so far, the magic isn’t working. Despite two years of healthy profits, private sector job creation has been tepid, and the US unemployment rate continues to hover around 9 percent.

There’s no reason to believe that things will get better. The main imperative of capitalism is that capital must circulate, expand, and expand some more, which it has been able to do quite well with the unemployment rate around 9 percent. So there’s not much incentive for business to add more jobs?

Meanwhile, those who support government taking a more active role in creating jobs are, to use a baseball analogy, playing small ball instead of trying to hit a home run.

For example bills filed in both the House and Senate entitled “The Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2011” would make it illegal for employers to exclude unemployed people from applying for jobs, which according to a study by the National  Employment Law Project (NELP) has been occurring more frequently. “Employers and staffing firms continue to post job ads that refuse to even consider the unemployed for openings, regardless of their qualifications,” said Christine Owens, executive director of NELP.

Another proposal entitled the Layoff Prevention Act sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed and Rep. Rosa DeLauro would encourage employers to adopt a work sharing program instead of laying off workers when business is bad. Workers in these programs would have their hours reduced instead of being laid off and be eligible to draw unemployment insurance to make up some of their lost wages. States that already have these programs in place would receive 100 percent federal financing, and federal financing would be available to states that want to create work sharing programs.

HR 870, the 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, is much more ambitious. It would establish a national trust fund to pay for a wide array of local projects designed to meet the needs of communities and put people back to work. The funding for the endowment would come from a 0.25 percent tax on financial transactions.

None of these bills has a chance of getting a proper hearing, much less of being acted on, because there is as yet no mass movement for a federal jobs program.

These kinds of movements don’t spring up overnight, and there is some work being done that may lead to the emergence of one. The International Association of Machinists created the Union of Unemployed, or UCubed, which seeks to build local networks of unemployed workers that can give each other support in finding new jobs and act as a pressure group to influence lawmakers to do more to create good jobs. So far UCubed has more than 3,000 members in every state but Arkansas.

In New Mexico, unemployed workers recently met to form New Mexico Wants to Work. The group, which is working with the state AFL-CIO, Working America, and AFL-CIO Community Services, launched a statewide “Where Are the Jobs?” campaign that it hopes will lead the state and local governments to do more to put unemployed workers back to work.

ProgressiveCongress.org is holding a nationwide Speak Out for Good Jobs tour in which members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus will listen to people who have been affected by the unemployment crisis and use their stories to build momentum for a national jobs program.

But for the time being austerity remains front and center on the stage of the nation’s political discourse, and the unemployment crisis merely a background prop.

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