Seeds of a Movement for the Unemployed

Portland Dry Cleaning Sign, photo by Igor Smirnoff

A Portland, Oregon, dry cleaning business helps out the unemployed, October 2009.

© Igor Smirnoff.

For decades, labor unions have ensured that workers have sufficient power to bargain for their rights and for a share of economic gains. But where do working Americans turn when they lose their jobs?

As the economy struggles to recover, groups in Maine, Pennsylvania, and Indiana are mobilizing the unemployed. Led by committed organizers, many of them laid-off union members, the groups’ work is reminiscent of unemployed activism that blossomed in the 1930s, and it could be an inspiration for a modern movement of the jobless.

In Indiana, the Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers Initiative (UAEWI) emerged as a direct response to the 2008 financial meltdown, and is now lobbying for a seat at the bargaining table of the Northeast Indiana Regional Workforce Board. UAEWI says the Board has announced $16 million for job retraining programs, but unemployed workers currently have no say in how the money will be distributed. “We are establishing a kind of bargaining dynamic with the state … so we can actually be part of that discussion instead of objects in the discussion,” says UAEWI founder Tom Lewandowski.

The Philadelphia Unemployment Project (PUP) has been championing the rights of the jobless since the mid-1970s OPEC recession, but their work has taken on new urgency in the last year. PUP educates the jobless on how to access state and federal unemployment compensation and pressures city, state, and federal governments to adopt policies like health care reform that will help those in financial stress.

PUP also represents homeowners facing foreclosure. In 2008, PUP organizers successfully pressured the city sheriff’s office to stop the sale of foreclosed homes. Their efforts led the Philadelphia courts to establish a program in April 2008 requiring lenders to participate in mediation with homeowners to seek new loan terms that will prevent foreclosure. The program prevented foreclosure among 80 percent of participating homeowners, according to an initial survey.

Another advocacy group, Maine’s Food AND Medicine (FAM) has emerged as a prominent voice for the state’s unemployed since its founding in 2002. FAM lobbies extensively for the unemployed and offers them classes on how to organize and take political leadership. FAM also runs a food bank.

This fall, FAM’s membership voted to focus on Solidarity Harvest, a program providing hundreds of unemployed workers with locally grown Thanksgiving meals. The campaign garnered substantial press coverage, giving FAM the chance to broadcast its messages about joblessness throughout greater Maine.

The project also helps unemployed people realize they aren’t alone. “If you’ve gotten laid off, it gives you a little bit of spirit knowing that people are trying to help you out,” says FAM member Phil Polk.

None of the three organizations has more than a few hundred members, but each relies less on formal membership than on organizing among the populations they serve.

Lewandowski hopes their efforts can spread across the country, perhaps with help from Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community outreach affiliate.

“Working America has been extremely encouraging for us and really engaged in the experimentation we are doing,” Lewandowski says. “We’ve been beginning to look around to see if there are other places in the country that might want to take up a version of this model.”

—Jake Blumgart is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to Campus Progress and Publicola.


Alan Greenspan“If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big …
In 1911, we broke up Standard Oil—so what happened? The individual parts became more valuable than the whole.”

Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve, calls for a breakup of big financial institutions in remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations.


  • Seeds of a Movement for the Unemployed

  • Can Northeast States Grow Their Own Food?

  • Activists Wrangle Forest Victories from Corporations

Also ... Brazil proposes ban of new sugar cane plantations in the Amazon

  • White House Opens Visitor Log to the Public

  • River Restoration Ends Klamath

Water Wars

  • Philly Transforms Stormwater into Gardens
  • Homeland Security Addresses Rights Violations

  • In Argentina, Activists Celebrate Media Reform