Jobs With Justice

Mass. Jobs with Justice Conference

As the toothless “recovery” from the recession totters along, the truth is dawning on more and more workers and youth that big business and its governments at federal, state, and local levels are all driving home huge, permanent cutbacks in our standard of living.

A “new normal” for working people — one of reduced income, fewer job prospects, worse health coverage, and rolling assaults on the quality and availability of public education — is the flip-side to the $8 trillion in give-aways and the massive tax breaks which have shifted public funds to the wealthy owners of industry and finance.

Today, the rulers’ aim has been trained sharply on public workers, whose living standards, pensions, and job security are blasted in the mass media as scapegoats for government budget crises. Workers are still absorbing the shocks of the initial blows.  And although very little open resistance to this onslaught has yet erupted, we can see the signs of simmering unrest beneath the calm surface.

It was in this context that 175 union and community activists celebrated the first statewide conference of Massachusetts “Jobs with Justice” in Worcester, MA, this past December.

Long term joblessness

The day kicked off with a peek at the economic outlook.  Economics Professor Fred Mosley from Mt. Holyoke College delivered a brief report on the 8.4 million jobs lost in the US since the start of the 2007 slump, and the length of time estimated for regaining that number of jobs through economic recovery.  At the rate of 100,000 jobs gained per month — a moderate rate of recovery — and assuming a continuing 0.8% growth of the labor force, it will take another 7 years of steady economic expansion to recover that number of jobs — but with a resulting official unemployment rate of 12.2%, 2.4% higher than today.

But he also charged the current official unemployment rate of 9.8% with vastly understating the actual level, which he estimates conservatively at about 20% of the workforce nationally.  He pointed out that under current rules, a worker who puts in only two hours a week is considered fully employed for the purpose of determining the jobless rate.

How many people is that?  Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for November translates 9.8% jobless into 15,100,000 people.  Mosley’s 20% figure recalculates to 30,800,000 jobless workers.

Using charts graphing out the unemployment figures from every post-WWII recession, he illustrated the flattened curve of development for the last two recessions — “jobless recoveries” — in which can be seen little to no recovery from job losses.

Professor Mosley’s verdict is that we will face high levels of unemployment for many years to come, prompting the emergence of a movement centered on the demand for a jobs creation program.  “We need a Full Employment Act,” he said.  “That may sound like a pipedream, but that’s what we need, and what we need a movement for.”

This proposal underlines one of the central planks in the WIL program, printed in every issue of Socialist Appeal.  Some of the points in our proposals for such an Act would be:

• Reduce the work week from 40 hours to 30 — with no cut in pay — to spread the available work around;
• Affirm the Right to a secure full-time job, full benefits, or a place in education, with voluntary retirement at age 55 with full benefits;
• For a massive program of public works to create jobs and housing, and to rebuild our infrastructure, inner cities, and the Gulf Coast.

“A Winning Strategy for Tough Times”

Elaine Bernard, Executive Director of the Labor & Workplace Program at Harvard University delivered the next presentation, “What’s a Winning Strategy for Tough Times?”

She gave an animated and entertaining talk, breaking down her strategic vision into three component parts that harken back to slogans of the early labor movement:  Educate; Agitate; Organize.

Bernard called for active efforts to change the axis of public discussion of issues facing working people, to shift the terrain of the story away from the distorted image presented by the big business media.

One example of how we might propose this could be done would be to shift the massive amounts of money and volunteer hours that unions waste in support of pro-capitalist Democratic Party politicians into founding a national newspaper, cable TV channel, and a webzine to present working class solutions to a mass audience.  Such a campaign would spark renewed interest in unionization efforts among workers, and galvanize links with students and others struggling for justice.

Panel Discussion

A panel discussion followed, in which various union leaders and activists delivered brief comments on how to fight back against the effects of the economic crisis.  Some of the highlights follow.

Enid Eckstein, Vice President of SEIU 1199 United Health Care Workers East said, “We need a labor movement active in the streets.”  She noted the need to change the union structure in a way to enable the mobilization of union members for action, “and sometimes quickly.”

Gladys Vega, Executive Director of Chelsea Collaborative, a community group serving immigrant workers in East Boston, described how, while leafleting during a union organizing effort, she had been red-baited. She replied, “Okay, if that’s what it means to support union organizing, I guess that’s what I am.”  Vega said, “I’ve never been a union member, but I know that as immigrant workers, we cannot move forward without unions.”

Horace Small, Executive Director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods in Boston, told of how, while working as an ACTWU organizer in Philadelphia, “You could feel the unity when we called each other brother and sister.” Today in Boston, on the other hand, “Without the SEIU, Black and brown people don’t know about union,” he said. “We need to work together to make sure unions include everyone.  With Wal-Mart coming to town, we have to make sure we win that one.”

John Murphy, Secretary-Treasurer Teamsters Local 122 and an International Vice President of the IBT, noted that union membership peaked in 1952 at 32% of the workforce, and the decline to its present 8% in the private sector tracks closely with the intensifying assault on the living standards of workers. “We thought in 2008 that we had found a transformational leader in President Obama, but we found out we were wrong,” he said.  “The priorities of the Democratic Party are not our priorities,” he declared, to loud applause.

Although not addressed during this conference, Murphy’s point touches on a glaring need, and a huge opportunity for “Jobs with Justice” and the labor movement as a whole: founding a mass party of labor, rooted in the unions.  Such a party could quickly become the main party of the working class majority, and not just during elections. A Labor Party would grow into a powerful organizing center for all workers and all fights against injustice.

“Jobs with Justice” in Massachusetts organizes solidarity with strikers here and abroad; support for single-payer health care; campaigns for economic justice; fights for immigrant rights; and should continue to attract new layers of workers and youth looking for ways to fight back against the effects of the capitalist


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