Unite HERE

by by George Warner

Joseph Mastrofrancesco, a tall, portly man from Fall River, has worked in manufacturing all his life. In 1988, he found his first job at Cowen Plastics—the oldest injectable molding company in Rhode Island, until it shut down in 2006. Nearly 20 years and a string of manufacturing jobs later, Mastrofancesco went to work at Thompson Products in 2006, running the machines that make photo boxes. “I thought I was going to be pretty much set,” he says.

But in February 2008, he was told he would be out of a job in June. The factory shut down; production shifted to a sister company overseas. Countless resumes, four interviews, and two years later,Mastrofrancesco is still out of a job. Between June, when his unemployment benefits ran out, and late August, when his wife found a job, the couple lived on $300 dollars a month. If Mastrofrancesco’s family hadn’t owned the house the couple lives in, he doesn’t know how they would have survived.

For Rhonda Taylor of North Providence, the last two years have been similar: resume after resume filed, interviews few and far between, no jobs offered. She had been employed most of her life, first as a teacher in New Hampshire, most recently in the merchandising department of a large company based in Rhode Island. Taylor, who is 42, lost her job in late 2008. “Apparently, once my job became automated, I was not necessary anymore.”

When her unemployment ran out earlier this year, her family—four children and a husband who is also unemployed— was left only with food stamps and the money she receives for her nine year-old son from Social Security, $713 dollars a month. “My rent alone is $750,” she says. She’s afraid her family might have to move to a shelter.

Despite mounting bills and bouts of depression that have come with unemployment, Mastrofancesco and Taylor—like many other unemployed Americans around the US—have started to speak up. Instead of taking it to the streets, they have connected with a vibrant online community of others hit hard by unemployment. Using UCubed, a social network for the unemployed, Facebook pages like “Tier 5 to Survive” and prominent blogs like Layoff List and Jobless Unite, unemployed people around the country have collectively petitioned politicians, shared resources for finding jobs and negotiating government benefits, combated stereotypes, and advocated for legislation.

Perspective and partisanship
In our Great Recession, the experience of unemployment has radically changed. Before 2008, unemployment was difficult, but usually short. Three-fourths or more of the unemployed would find a job in less than six months, even during the roughest of times. Now, unemployment lasts over six months for nearly half of those without a job. As a group, they are older, almost certainly without a college degree, and likely to continue being jobless. Many, until now, felt solidly middle class. Now, they are becoming part of the growing American poor.

The new reality of unemployment seems here to stay. This past Sunday on ABC, Austan Goolsbee, chair of the Obama administration’s Council of Economic Advisers, warned that unemployment is “going to stay high.” In Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts, the same industries that have resulted in the most job losses—manufacturing, administrative services and construction—are the ones least likely to return.

At the same time, the unemployed have faced increased criticism from the political right. For them, chronic unemployment is not a structural issue: it is the product of supposedly anemic work ethic made worse by generous government handouts. In June, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) explained the rationale behind his proposal to drug test all recipients of government assistance: “We should not be giving cash to people who basically are going to go blow it on drugs.” In Nevada, Sharron Angle, the Republican challenger to Senator Harry Reid (D), suggested that the unemployed were “spoiled.” Glenn Beck thinks that unemployed people—unwilling to work because of unemployment benefits—should be ashamed to call themselves Americans. The unemployed should “go out and get a job…work at McDonalds. Work two jobs,” he said.

But, as Taylor says, “I can’t even get a job at Burger King,” let alone two. For Mastrofrancesco, who quit smoking cigarettes over the last year, the question is: “How do you expect us to take drugs and party when we can barely pay the bills?” It is less that people are unwilling to work than that there are simply few jobs to be had. In July, there were nearly five job seekers for every job opening. As of August, there were 15 million Americans unemployed. And while Republicans—and some Democrats—oppose extending unemployment insurance, the Congressional Budget Office, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stieglitz all agree that unemployment benefits, by providing guaranteed spending, are a surefire way to stimulate our still-dormant economy.

Alone Together
The unemployed are not rolling with the punches, they are fi ghting back. On August 12, unemployed people from New York and elsewhere rallied on Wall Street, demanding that Congress address longterm unemployment. But for many of the unemployed, the cost of travel makes attending such rallies too costly. Taylor laughs at the idea of driving down to New York. Since her car registration expired, she is more concerned about how she is going to travel around Providence. She plans on learning to navigate RIPTA, a service she has yet to use.

In lieu of rallies, the unemployed have turned online. Taylor has posted articles,legislative updates, and pending actions to “The 99ers need a Tier V added to Unemployment Benefits,” a Facebook page, recently helping a Cleveland area man find transportation to the One Nation
Working Together rally this October in DC.

Mastrofrancesco has kept people informed too, using Facebook as a means to share his experience of receiving Pell Grants designated specifically for dislocated workers. With the help of those grants, he is now getting retrained as a social worker at Bristol Community College. He hopes his comments will help other unemployed people take advantage of the same, underused program.

Since April, much of the action has been geared at getting Congress to pass a fifth tier of unemployment benefits, now limited to a maximum of 99 weeks in states with high unemployment. On May Day, unemployed blogger Paladinette (known as Donalee King offline), helped organize a “Mayday SOS” campaign. She posted the fax numbers for Members of Congress, President Obama and White House staff on her blog, Jobless Unite—and encouraged unemployed readers to fax in their resumes as a protest. At the time, the LA Times explained: “a further extension is considered unlikely.” Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), the powerful head of the Senate Finance Committee, said that he thought “99 weeks [of benefits] is sufficient.”

The organizing has started to pay off. In June, both Taylor and Mastrofrancesco’s stories were highlighted at a meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee proposing potential responses to unemployment. On August 4, the Americans Want to Work Act (AWTWA) was introduced in the Senate, co-sponsored by both Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI). The legislation would provide 20 additional weeks of benefits for the unemployed in states with unemployment above 7.5 percent, potentially keeping Taylor’s family in her home. It would also expand and extend tax benefits for companies that hire the long-term unemployed, counteracting the prejudice that long-term unemployed workers have experienced while searching for jobs.

But passing AWTWA will be an uphill battle. Many members of Congress see the fight to keep the temporary 99 weeks intact as a still uncertain victory. Whether or not AWTWA passes, the persistent voices of the unemployed have helped keep the worsening problem of long-term joblessness on the public radar this fall.

Despite their activism, Mastrofrancesco and Taylor are no politicos. “I hate my situation the way it is,” Mastrofrancesco says. His priority is to finish his associate’s degree and find a job. Politics come second.