Dr. Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist at the Center for Labor Research and Education, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California-Berkeley, and a member of the Retail Justice Alliance, reacts to last week’s unemployment numbers:
Last week, the Labor Department released the official unemployment numbers for March. The overall unemployment rate was 6.7 percent; for whites, the rate was 5.8 percent; for Blacks, the rate was 12.4 percent; for Latinos, the rate was 7.9 percent. While these numbers are lower than they were a year ago, what is more telling is these numbers are also higher than they were in December 2007, just prior to the beginning of the Great Recession. This lack of progress reflects the inability to enact sensible economic policies after the economy collapsed and use the immense resources of the federal government to help the residents of this country. Instead, policy makers were either conscious actors protecting the interests of the very financial institutions that triggered the crisis, paralyzed by the power of the Right that seeks to return our country to the social contract that existed before the Great Depression, or enthralled by a narrative that said that economic progress required austerity measures. Hopefully, we will never again be in a place where agents of the financial elite, ideologues of a reactionary Right, or practitioners of a misguided theory can hold working people hostage.
This place where the powers of the government are used to promote the greater good is one element of what Dr. King and others called “the Beloved Community.” It is ironic that these dismal economic numbers were released on the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King as he fought for the right of Black sanitation workers to organize a union. Reflecting on this irony, we should understand his last campaign provided us insight into how to emerge from this wilderness. First, the jobs problems we face go far beyond this issue of unemployment; our crisis has two dimensions: unemployment and low-wage work. The problems facing the Memphis workers were problems facing the working poor. Focusing on unemployment will not address this. Second, a key strategy to addressing the underlying issue of powerlessness is building membership organization comprised of the working poor. Too often, friends advance a set of solutions that emphasize education, workforce development, and entrepreneurship. While these activities are useful, in today’ economy, they will not achieve results on the scale that we need since they do not address the fundamental power dynamics in our society. These dynamics can only be changed if we build powerful organizations of working people. We cannot achieve economic justice without organizing workers in the workplace.