Stories from the jobless

By Steve Leigh

SEATTLE--The King County Labor Council and the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at University of Washington held two days of hearings March 30-31 on the problem of unemployment in the Seattle area, called "Unemployed Nation Hearings."

The purpose of the hearings was to highlight the grave issue of unemployment. As the program said:

More than 23 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed...they could populate a nation, a distressed and forgotten nation, a nation whose voice remains unheard...The Great Recession has been accompanied by a great silence. We hope to help unemployed workers find a louder voice and a broader audience.

At the hearing in City Hall in Seattle on March 31, about 75 people heard from a panel of unemployed workers being questioned by social service activists. The hearing started with opening words from Mayor Mike McGinn. McGinn outlined the devastating effects of the recession on Seattle.

Seattle, a city of 600,000, lost 35,000 jobs during 2008-9. Half those jobs have been regained, but mostly at much lower wage rates. McGinn even praised Occupy for raising issues of inequality, though he allowed the police to shut down the Occupy camp. Dave Freiboth, head of the King County Labor Council called on participants to take responsibility for the changes in law that had allowed the recession, because, "We didn't stop them." He did, however, lay blame at both Democrats and Republicans for the legal changes.

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THE MOST important and moving testimony came from the workers themselves. Zekarias Abebe, a Seattle port truck driver, was called to work at the last minute, but sent in his testimony:

Conditions at the port are worse since our strike. The companies are taking work away to punish the drivers who organized. Many are not being dispatched. We can wait days or weeks for dispatch. The companies don't pay into unemployment insurance because they say we are independent contractors, not workers.

We are only paid by the load, not the hour. We have to use old and unsafe equipment. Health and safety laws don't cover us because we are not legally employees. They are underemploying us to crush our movement.

Last year, I cleared only $20,000 after expenses. We are not technically unemployed. When most people think of un- or under-employment, they think of workers not getting enough hours of work. In our case, we can work a lot of hours, but are not paid for them.

Betsy Shedd of the Operating Engineers, James Henry of the Iron Workers and Ed Reed of the Stage Hands (IATSE) explained the insecurity of working from project to project.

Shedd explained how she has to plan doctor appointments during the period she is working, no matter when the medical problem arises. Even union coverage only applies while she is working, or for a limited period after a job. She explained the feeling of being a "shut-in" during periods between jobs. She said, "And I don't have kids--I don't know how people with kids do it." She also pointed out the tyranny of construction work. No excuses are accepted for not being on the job.

This especially penalizes women with children and highlights the need for good child care to allow full female participation on the job. She ended with a ringing call to oppose the current attacks by the politicians against pensions and Social Security.

James talked about the 30-40 percent unemployment among construction workers generally. He has a young child and has to work out of the state on a regular basis to get work. This puts a tremendous strain on his family:

It has never been this bad in the 12 years I've been an ironworker. Unemployment Insurance is a life-saver, but even with that we are falling behind. I have to file for unemployment compensation in the other states I work in. Every state has different rules and sometimes I don't meet the minimum hours in the other state , but that time worked doesn't count in Washington. Our credit is shot, and we are trying to short-sell our house before foreclosure. I don't ever expect to own a home again.

Ed said that the work for stagehands has been sparse since the start of the recession. He has lost health care because he doesn't work enough to maintain it now, averaging only 4 to 12 hours per week. "There are 600 on the list in our local," he said. "I am 150 from the top. This means that there are another 450 members getting even less work than I do. I own a house, but don't know how long that will last. I expect that in five years I may be living in my car with my dog."

All three talked about the psychological impacts of unemployment--the feelings of isolation, insecurity and doubts about self-worth. This compounds the economic deprivation unemployed people face. As bad as it is for the workers on the panel, they are covered by union contracts with some benefits that persist even while unemployed. These workers also make better than average wages while working. The fate of even lower paid and especially non-union workers is even worse when unemployed.

Holding these hearings was a good step toward raising awareness among the general public about the problem of unemployment, which as the brochure noted has been more hidden than it was during the 1930s. However, more than awareness needs to be raised. Occupy has opened up the possibilities for fighting back.

Defense of people facing foreclosure is more widespread across the U.S. However, the union movement needs to build a movement for jobs, single payer health care and against budget cuts to begin to overcome the crisis of unemployment. This is where the resources of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win need to go, instead of electing more politicians who are pro-worker during the campaign, but forget their promises once elected.