Press: It gets better?

Apr 4 2012

By Aaron Burkhalter
From Real Change News

The It Gets Better campaign created an online movement to normalize homosexuality and push the conversation about homophobic bullying into the mainstream.

People across the country started posting inspirational messages on YouTube to young gay students, telling them their lives would improve.

The movement, started by gay activist Dan Savage, caught on quickly. Celebrities and even President Barack Obama posted videos of their own.

A new campaign, Unemployed Nation,  hopes similar YouTube videos can remove the stigma of unemployment by putting a face on the issue.

People are posting YouTube videos at unemployednation.org to share their experience of joblessness.

Participants in these online conversations will also meet face-to-face in two days of hearings convened by the King County Labor Council and academics at the University of Washington.

Panels of unemployed people will speak at hearings March 30 at the University of Washington and March 31 at Seattle City Hall.

But where Savage’s campaign promised things will get better for gay youth, there are no such assurances for the long-term unemployed.

Even as the recession eases, student unemployment remains high, and more than a third of unemployed people have been jobless for more than a year.

UW historian James Gregory said the fear in his students is palpable. Most people clam up and never talk about it.

“I’ve learned not to even ask graduating seniors about their plans,” he said. “They’ll just tear up they’re so scared. They’re demoralized.”

Off campus, the unemployed have become invisible, he said.

“We’re four years into this crisis, and you hear a lot from pundits, and the newspapers publish a lot of statistics, but we don’t see the faces of the unemployed, and we don’t hear the voices of the unemployed,” Gregory said.

The Unemployed Nation hearings are modeled after congressional hearings but meant to cull the voices of people who aren’t being heard.

Gregory said the campaign should show the diverse nature of unemployment, including blue-collar workers, long-term unemployed and students.

Unemployed more isolated

Betsy Shedd, one of the panelists, has spent years on and off unemployment benefits. When Shedd, 54, of Seattle, filed her 2004 income tax, she reported zero income.

For months at a time over the past 35 years, Shedd has been unemployed.

She works as a crane operator in heavy construction, a sector that’s always been volatile. Whether the economy is up or down, people in her field struggle to keep steady work, Shedd said. She found some work recently but expects that, as soon as the contract is over, she’ll be unemployed again for several months.

Unemployment benefits are to Shedd like a piece of elastic holding her life together between jobs. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins saw the need for that elasticity, but politicians today, she said, just don’t get it.

Wall Street executives and politicians are detached from the communities who grow the food, build the cities and clean the streets, she said.

“If their family members never worked the canneries or their families members never worked as agricultural workers, they don’t put any value towards it,” she said. “They only value the people who work for Microsoft or car-sales dealers.”

During the Great Depression, unemployed people stood in line to get benefits.

“It was shameful to have to go queue up for the minimal relief that was available,” Gregory said. “It gave the media and photographers something to photograph.”

It also pushed workers to build a platform for action.

“Two to three years into the depression, that kind of fear, that privacy instinct was being overridden by people learning to become active and develop political organizations demanding jobs,” he said.

Today, unemployed people are more isolated. They fill out unemployment forms online, email their job applications and phone prospective employers out of view of the media glare.

A lack of resources further isolates the unemployed. When she doesn’t have a job, Shedd stays put.

“I don’t go out much. I don’t contribute much to the general economy at all when I’m unemployed,” she said. “It’s all I can do to just maintain rent.”

Rallying around the issue

The Occupy Wall Street movement propelled people out of their homes and into political action, said Dave Frieboth, executive secretary for the King County Labor Council.

Unemployed Nation draws on the same frustrations that drove people to Occupy event, he said. Organizers hope Unemployed Nation will continue to spread to other campuses, just like It Gets Better and Occupy events.

The conversation will have to grow from the ground up, because politicians don’t seem interested in collecting the voices of the unemployed, Frieboth said.

“This is something Congress should be doing,” he said.