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The Unemployed, Organized Online, Look to the Midterms

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Workers march to protest for jobs legislation. (Rasdourian/Flickr)

Sometime this spring, Republicans turned against unemployment. In Nevada, Sharron Angle (R), the candidate facing incumbent Sen. Harry Reid (D), told local reporters, “You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that is an honest job.” (Untrue.) Angle also called the unemployed “spoiled.”

[Economy1] Rand Paul, a candidate for a Kentucky Senate seat, made similar statements, and politicians in Washington followed suit. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said on C-SPAN that extending unemployment would discourage “individuals that are out there to actually go out and go through the interviews.”

But unlike most comments from politicians, these criticisms did not diffuse into the generic noise of political chatter. They began reverberating in what might be termed the unemployed netroots — a system of highly trafficked, influential blogs and sites connecting the jobless and updating them, often in minute detail, about the ins and outs of Congress’ work on unemployment issues.

When Jordan, a former programmer living in Nevada, lost his position with a local university, he began sending out resumes, but he also found himself following the eight-month battle for an unemployment extension closely — each failed Senate vote, each new House proposal. (He requested I withhold his last name to avoid impeding his job search.) Online, he started surfing list-servs, posting on message boards and using resources from the unemployed. A few times, he has worked up the courage to call his legislators’ offices.

Jordan has searched hard for a job and is now considering moving away from his family for a few months, if it means he can send home a paycheck. “I have voted Republican my entire life,” he says. “I don’t want to vote for Harry Reid. But I don’t want to be told I’m lazy, and I’m dumb, and I’m living high on the hog, collecting [unemployment insurance] because I want to.”

There are more than 30 million people left without work at some point during the course of the recession; 14.6 million are currently unemployed. As many as 4 million people have exhausted the maximum weeks of federal and state unemployment benefits. In each case, Jordan is among these millions, and for an uncountable number of people like him, the experience with income insecurity has led to a political awakening.

Among the biggest sites in the unemployment netroots is LayoffList, managed by Michael Thornton, a native of Rochester, N.Y. Thornton started LayoffList in 2008; five months ago, he began writing articles and posting legislators’ information on the Rochester Unemployment Examiner. He now receives hundreds of emails and has logged more than a million hits at the Examiner. Thornton is finding that, rather than losing interest in politics since the end of the fight for extended benefits, the unemployed are “energized and motivated” and have started looking forward to the fall.

“Even Republicans say they aren’t voting Republican anymore,” the soft-spoken former technical writer says. “You have millions of unemployed people out there. If even half of them voted, they could swing a nationwide election.”

Paladinette — the online “zealot for the unemployed” also known as LaDona King — has taken the battle over the unemployment extension as more of a call to arms. She routinely publishes phone numbers, fax numbers and email addresses of lawmakers to target, rallying her thousands of online supporters to the cause. King personally calls 25 or 30 legislators’ offices a day. Sometimes, when she posts lawmakers’ numbers or picks out a particularly egregious example of a legislator blocking a vote or putting down the unemployed, her followers flood a Senate or House office with phone calls. The same goes for LayoffList. At one point, Thornton published the name and number of a House staffer working on unemployment legislation. Soon after, the staffer called and begged him to take it down, he says.

“They’re all concerned about their re-election,” King says. “We’re making sure the Republicans get blasted for their obstructionist behavior. … We have tons of people calling, faxing, emailing.”

“We’re lobbyists in training,” she laughs. “Without all that money!”

During the eight month battle to extend unemployment insurance, with the unemployment rate peaking over 10 percent, huge online networks of the unemployed came into fruition. Now, coming into the fall and the midterms, King and other grassroots organizers for the unemployed are hooking up with formal organizing groups to add institutional oomph to the effort. They say they do not want to let the long battle for simple extensions go to waste.

Already, a number of unions and other organizations have created dedicated working groups or online organizations for the jobless. Last year, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, a labor union, founded the Ur Union of Unemployed, or U-Cubed, for jobless workers. Additionally, the AFL-CIO’s Working America affiliate has launched Unemployment Lifeline, an online site to rally and organize the unemployed.

Working America is “the biggest organization for the unemployed,” according to spokesman Robert Fox. By the union’s own count, 500,000 of its 3.2 million members are currently jobless, and the group is going door-to-door, recruiting more members from the ranks of the unemployed.

“We spend most of our time demanding the reform of banks, demanding good jobs, and trying to make sure that there’s investment being made in our communities,” says Fox. But come this fall, “We’re going to be engaging our members fully, making sure they’re aware of which candidates to support.”

“We have the ability to make sure a lot of unemployed folks know where politicians stand, who is voting against making investments in jobs, who needs to hear from unemployed workers and who needs to hear from them twice,” he says.

Likewise, U-Cubed is readying unemployed workers to call out politicians and candidates stumping in their home states during the August recess, planning to visit events in Wichita, Ks., and the west coast.

The push from the unemployment netroots has already started. Upon hearing that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) might attempt to move legislation for unemployed workers who have exhausted their benefits this week, Paladinette urged her followers to start calling possible swing votes — Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), Scott Brown (Mass.) and Charles Grassley (Iowa).

And she says she is gearing up to push her followers to attend rallies starting next week. “We don’t want to be like the Tea Partiers,” she says, noting their small-government views, “Just sort of.”

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