A vigil for Portland’s unemployed

August 26, 2010

PORTLAND--Approximately 20 unemployed and underemployed workers and allies demonstrated in front of City Hall on August 18 in the first of what is to become a weekly vigil demanding living-wage jobs for all and a social safety net that doesn't let anyone fall through the cracks.

Organized by a coalition consisting of the Sunnyside Self-Help Employment Group; the Coalition of Unemployed, Underemployed and Marginalized Workers; and Jobs with Justice, the weekly vigils are meant to raise awareness and visibility of unemployed and underemployed workers in the Portland metro area--a group that is being pushed further and further under the radar.

"Only in America can you have a full-time job, be poor, live on the streets, and have no benefits," organizer Ted Pyle announced through a megaphone to downtown passersby.

Oregon's unemployment rate is now officially at 10.6 percent, over one percentage point above the national average. In addition, the rate of Oregon's unemployed has continued to increase.

According to the Oregon Employment Dept. and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, when those who have given up job hunting and those working less hours than desired are included, the rate jumps up to 20.6 percent, compared to 16.5 percent nationally. And of course, it's much worse for minorities.

"It's not our fault that we are unemployed," said Eleyna Fugman, one of the main organizers of the coalition. "We are looking for jobs. We want to work." With an Ivy League degree and plenty of experience working in the non-profit sector, Fugman is among the growing ranks of a well-educated and qualified workforce finding an increasingly bleak employment outlook ahead.

She hopes that the vigils will make the unemployed more visible, and make it easier to connect with other groups, such as Oregon People Activating Leaders (OPAL), which came out in solidarity and to promote an upcoming march and rally against bus service cuts.

The visibility is also part of eliminating the shame and isolation that many people feel regarding unemployment. "There should be no such thing as the 'working poor,'" Fugman said. "A jobless recovery is like a foodless meal."

The coalition began in summer of 2009 when a group of four unemployed and underemployed neighbors started having monthly meetings. George Slanina Jr., one of the founding four, said that the group shaped their goals in the first few meetings, and then focused on organizing a support network for those in need.

Slanina said he envisions having more neighborhood groups so that people don't have to spend money to go to a meeting. The groups can then help people get by on a daily basis, as well as provide a way to organize around a larger political struggle. "Ultimately, we want to build a nationwide movement," said Slanina. "Like back in the 1930s. You know that slogan, 'Start local, think global.'"

For outreach, the coalition has put out an "Unemployment/Underemployment Survey," with the hope that people will fill one out and then contact the group and get more involved. For now, Slanina said, the goal is for each person who comes to one of the vigils to bring another person to the next one. "We want to get enough people here to get noticed."

Paul Dean, a member of the coalition, said that the next step is to get the unions involved, to make sure that the city doesn't contract out jobs while undercutting the jobs that exist.

Also outside of City Hall on Wednesday were several mainstream media representatives, though to cover a different story. They were interested in the fact that city representatives were in the midst of rushing through a deal for the wind turbine company Vestas to expand in Portland. The newly approved deal includes a 15-year, $8 million interest-free loan--consisting of taxpayer dollars--from the city council to the company, with the added stipulation that they create 100 jobs over five years. That's 20 jobs a year--barely crumbs when compared to the over 220,000 Oregonians in need.

It is also a sign of the enormous corporate welfare the city is capable of, and that the money exists, just not for the people who desperately need it.

Further Reading

From the archives