After 99 weeks, or more, of unemployment, traveling to a political rally is a luxury. Across the country, thousands of 99ers, Americans who have exhausted the maximum weeks of unemployment benefits, have written letters or called Congress advocating for legislation extending benefits or creating jobs programs. But the first 99ers rally, held on Wall Street this Thursday, proved a more modest affair.
[Congress1] Normally, the unemployed suffer from political disenfranchisement, on top of the hardships of joblessness, including loss of income, poorer health outcomes and eroding skills. But a group of activists working online have founded list-servs and websites to connect hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers. And they have teamed up with major labor unions, like the AFL-CIO and the SEIU, to flex their political might. Up until now, their efforts have been virtual; at Thursday’s rally, the unemployed took to the streets for the first time.
The rally came at a good time politically. Despite the very long odds of passage, Senate and House Democrats have originated two bills to aid the 99ers in the past 10 days. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) introduced a bill moving the maximum number of weeks of federal and state benefits to 119 last week. And this week, Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.) and Shelley Berkley (Nv.) introduced similar legislation in the House.
But just two dozen or so 99ers and a few dozen more unemployed persons met on the steps of Federal Hall, across from the New York Stock Exchange. (Most of the 99ers or figures in the unemployment netroots I spoke with before the event said that they could not afford the gas or plane ticket to get to the rally.) Members of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 100 and the United Federation of Teachers joined them.
A few hiccups marred the event. The weather hardly cooperated, with spitting rain and punishing heat and humidity. Additionally, the organizers failed to register for a sound permit, so the New York City Policy officers keeping the peace ordered activists to put away the megaphone about 10 minutes into the event.
Organized by the fledgling Unemployed Workers Action Group, the rally called for an expansion of unemployment insurance and jobs programs for the long-term unemployed. There are an estimated 1.5 million 99ers across the country, and their plight results from a recession with not just an unusually high unemployment rate, but an unusually long average duration of unemployment. Indeed, a typical jobless worker — of whom there are 14.6 million — has been out of work for more than 34 weeks, about 8 months, a length unprecedented since the Great Depression.
Despite its small size, the 99ers’ rally accomplished an important goal: It got the attention of the press, and advocates for the 99ers see the press as the key to creating pressure for legislation. “Two months ago, nobody knew who the 99ers were,” LaDona King, a 99er and major figure in the 99er netroots told me. “Everybody thought it was some city’s AAA baseball team.”
But with growing awareness, they hope, will come political action. To that end, a volunteer at the rally took journalists’ names and numbers, and ensured that any reporter wanting access to a 99er for her story got easy access to several. Late in the event, Ed Schultz — the MSNBC and radio host who has devoted countless programming minutes to the 99ers, and for that reason holds nearly beatific standing among them — stood in a pair of khaki shorts at the back, conducting interviews and shaking hands. (He planned to address the crowd, but could not because of the noise permit issue.)
And with the press there, the 99ers at the rally got their chance to speak, and tell their stories. Betty S. Cohen, of Brooklyn, worked as an administrative assistant at an investment bank — not a commercial bank, she notes — for two years before she was laid off in July 2008. “My skills are excellent,” she sighs, “but I can’t get a job anywhere.” She has applied to hundreds of positions via Monster.com and other online search engines, as well as contacting former employers and friends for leads. “I have gotten five calls, and no offers.” she says. “They don’t tell you why.”
She has long since exhausted any savings, does not have any living family and is increasingly late on her rent and bills, though she says she was recently approved for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits. “A friend loaned me $20,” she says. “And I told her I didn’t know when I would pay it back. I offered to pay her back in food. I can buy that now, at least.”
Marion Glandorf formerly worked for Grenadier Realty Corp. on Roosevelt Island as an executive assistant. She managed contractor relationships for 1,100 apartments, assessed tenant needs and answered scores of calls per day. She came to the rally — she notes she is not a 99er, not yet — wearing a giant sign with her resume on it around her neck.
Joining her was Bob Kohler of Suffolk County, New York. He had worked as an IT project manager before the recession, and has focused on writing motivational works about the power of positive thinking and the need to accept hardship. (He said the angry tone of the rally, with speakers shouting at the nearby investment banks, would prove counterproductive.)
Kohler did not realize his unemployment insurance would run out shortly after Christmas. It just stopped. “It happened abruptly,” he said, and his wife and he had not adequately prepared. “The American dream?” he says, softly. “It’s decimated.”
The rally attempted to capture that sense of decimation, with speakers sharing their stories of hardship — the loss of homes, the loss of respect, the trouble with health, the depression — on the Federal Hall steps, facing the New York Stock Exchange. Some rallied against the banks nearby, but most focused on the need for congressional jobs bills and a Tier V.
Dozens of tourists stopped to listen and to clap in support among the protesters and the camera crews. So did a few investment bankers. “Get a fucking job” shouted one young man dressed, stereotypically, in a dark suit, red tie and loafers, his hair sharply parted. He was booed.
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