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WHY IMMEDIATE AND LONG-TERM UNEMPLOYMENT REFORM IS A MATTER OF RACIAL AND GENDER JUSTICE

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The expanded pandemic unemployment programs have been a critical lifeline for tens of millions of workers during the pandemic, but their necessity and success highlight the gaping holes and longstanding inequities in an intentionally under-resourced unemployment insurance system.

Government has a responsibility to provide economic security for people, beyond times of crisis, and it has to listen and be accountable when people organize and advocate for needed reforms that grant this security. When the pandemic hit, the unemployment insurance system in the US was in dire need of immediate reforms that would address the needs of those most impacted. In March 2020, far too many jobless workers fell into a woefully neglected unemployment system that was ill-equipped to meet their needs. As a result, Congress passed temporary programs to address the biggest gaps in the program, including coverage for app-based and part-time workers and those with caregiving responsibilities, expanded benefit duration and increased weekly benefit amounts. And as a result of jobless workers organizing to hold their government accountable, Congress extended these crucial programs twice.

In 2021 alone, the unemployment insurance system has served as a vital lifeline for over 53 million workers and injected almost $800 billion into the economy. At the height of the pandemic, nearly 16 million workers simultaneously relied on these federal pandemic programs and would otherwise have been shut out of the unemployment program entirely. Now with these temporary programs ending on Labor Day, an estimated 7.5 million people will lose their unemployment benefits entirely.

The US labor market and unemployment insurance program were designed to prioritize white male workers. As a result, Black workers and other workers of color have faced racist hiring and firing practices, longer periods of unemployment, and over-representation among unemployment claimants.

Ending the temporary programs that addressed some of the gaps that kept Black unemployed workers and other jobless workers of color from acquiring unemployment insurance will have devastating impacts on these communities. Currently, Black workers experience 8.2 percent unemployment and Latinx workers experience 6.6 percent, compared to 4.8 percent unemployment for white workers.

Similarly, with the continued rise of the Delta variant as the federal programs end, people with generational caregiving responsibilities and school age children are left with impossible choices, and women who in particular do more care work, will be left with no support as they attempt to care for their families and return to work. Mothers across the country were forced from work to care for children and their ongoing caregiving responsibilities continue to stop them from being able to return to the labor force. The change in labor force participation is particularly dramatic for single mothers: by June 2021, the labor force participation rate of single mothers in their prime working years was still 5 percentage points lower than it had been in January 2020. The pandemic unemployment programs provided temporary support for these women, but with benefits expiring they again will be shut out of our outdated unemployment system that simply does not serve their needs.

Disabled and immunocompromised workers and their family members who are unable to return to work due to health and safety concerns will also face the same fate – being left with no support as delta surges. These workers faced some of the greatest challenges during this pandemic and our system should not shut them out, especially as emergency rooms and ICUs continue to be overwhelmed.

We cannot afford to continue to rely on temporary fixes that expire based on arbitrary dates rather than worker and economic needs. Rather, we must transform the unemployment insurance system to serve all workers at all times, whether the country is in a public health or economic crisis or not. As Congress enters the reconciliation process, we must continue to demand that elected leaders lay the groundwork for this transformation by enacting bold, structural UI reform including expanded coverage, increased minimum benefit duration and increased benefit amounts that are in line with basic living expenses. Without these measures, we cannot have an equitable recovery.

About the Author: Jenna Gerry, as a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, supports NELP’s efforts to end systemic racism in our social insurance system by providing legal and technical assistance to grassroots organizing groups and reformers to develop new worker informed and centered strategies to improve state and federal policies, build worker power, and improve jobless workers’ access to unemployment insurance Jenna is a proud member of the NELP Staff Association, NOLSW, UAW, LOCAL 2320.

This blog originally appeared at NELP on August 31, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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After 41 Years, The Teamsters Reform Movement Is Finally Building Power

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In the beginning, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) was full of spunk. But they didn’t have any union leaders on their side, nor many rank and file supporters, nor much strategy about turning around a corruption-riddled union.

“When they said we didn’t know what we were doing, it wasn’t totally false,” says Ken Paff, who has led the TDU almost since its founding 41 years ago. “We knew what we didn’t know.”

In time, the TDU learned how to become a thorn in the union’s side, challenging its contracts, finger pointing to officials’ corruption and lopsided multiple salaries, and electing reform-minded members to local and national positions.

At its 41st convention from October 27 to 29 in Chicago, TDU will mark last year’s national campaign that fell only 6,000 votes short of ousting James P. Hoffa. He has led the nearly 1.3-million-member union since 1999, four years longer than his father, James R. Hoffa.

But the TDU is not “just about elections,” Paff says.

The talk during the upcoming convention, according to Paff, will focus on winning strong contracts, converting part-time jobs into full-time work, boosting wages that start for some at $11 an hour and protecting pensionsthat have been under attack. And then there’s what the group has focused on since its start: developing leaders, he adds. The union’s problem, he explains, “is not such bad leaders, but that we need more leaders.”

It’s a strategy of constant activity that the TDU honed as it became one of a handful of reform movements inside the nation’s largest unions. And it has survived with a small Detroit-based staff and about 10,000 members, of whom half are behind on their dues, according to Paff. TDU has six full-time staff, all of whom earn the same salary, as well as two part-timers, Paff explained.

Paff joined the group in 1978 as a full-time national organizer. But he didn’t fit the stereotype of a hardscrabble trucker. He had an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of California at Berkeley and had worked as a schoolteacher. He was driving for a trucking company in Cleveland when he lined up with the union dissidents. For inspiration, he studied the work of the Miners for Democracy, learning about their battle within the United Mine Workers union.

Looking for a way to make an impact, TDU began campaigning against the contracts signed by the union. It was a gutsy strategy, since the group had no voice within the union. “They [the contracts] were terrible, and members knew it. And they [union leaders] didn’t have to pay any attention to the members,” Paff recalls. The group won a lawsuit requiring the union to put its contracts up for a majority vote. After a major publicity push, members voted down the union’s master freight agreement in 1987.

“That really caused people to take notice,” Paff says.

But the real turning point came in 1989, when the U.S. government took control of the union in a consent order—and said the union had to hold its first-ever rank-and-file election. The government described the union as virtually a “wholly owned subsidiary of organized crime.

The union sought to put off the election, which finally took place two-and-a-half years later. Ironically, that was a gift for the TDU. “It was perfect for us. We weren’t able to hold an election and we lined up Ron Carey to win,” Paff recalls. Carey’s 1991 election led to reforms across the union.

But the changes were short-lived. An election victory by Carey in 1996 was overturned, and he was barred from the union by a court ruling as a result of election wrongdoing by his aides, leading to a new election. Hoffa beat a TDU-backed candidate in 1998 and has been in power ever since.

For the last 35 years, the TDU has hectored the union about officials’ salaries. Its latest report, issued in 2016, showed, that 46 union leaders earned over $200,000 in 2015. Hoffa earned $387,244 in salary and compensation in 2015, the TDU reported. He was ranked as the highest paid leader of a major union in 2016, according to news reports.

John Coli, the once-powerful head of Chicago area Teamsters, was among the highest-paid Teamsters in 2015, with $337,215 in salary and compensation, according to the TDU. He was indicted this year by federal officials for an alleged extortion scheme that netted him $325,000 from a major Teamster employer in Chicago. A major internal investigation of union corruption that focused on Chicago collapsed in 2004, allegedly when Chicago Teamster leaders protested to Hoffa.

By constantly pointing to the union’s high salaries and voicing the concerns within the union, Paff claims that the attention helped spur changes. “Once we got the right to vote, we started driving down the salaries. [Jackie] Presser made $500,000 in the 1980s, and today they make in the 300,000s,” Paff says.

Some of the TDU’s challenges have not disappeared, however. At the union’s last convention, only 8 percent of the delegates were aligned with the group. Furthermore, TDU has been unable to raise the money required to run a major national campaign. Hoffa and his slate spent about $3 million on the national election in 2016.

And yet the Teamsters United slate, backed by the TDU, won in the Midwest and South, sweeping the votes in the Chicago area for the first time ever. One of its candidates for vice president came within roughly 4,000 votes of winning, according to Paff. The vote totals “show you the discrepancy between the rank-and-file and local officials,” he adds.

With many more Teamsters coming from jobs outside prisons and public services—the union’s traditional trucking base—the union is seeing more members who don’t have the same interests or long-term loyalties to Hoffa and his supporters. Paff sees yet more potential for change. At 71 years old, he expects to pass the baton to others in the coming years.

There’s no expectation within the TDU that jobs are passed down to family, friends or long-term allies—as is the case in some unions, he says. Paff underscores, “We still have people out there who can help.”

 This article was originally published at In These Times on  October 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.

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