Saturday, August 24, 2013

March on Washington: It's still about jobs

Next week is the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Marchers, including Teamsters from across the country, gathered in Washington, D.C., to call attention to civil rights issues, especially the need for good jobs for all people.  This series focuses on how well (or not) our society has met the 50-year-old demands of the marchers. So far, we’ve discussed the decline of the minimum wages and the gaps in labor law protections.

In 1963, America was in the middle of an economic crisis.  Although the national unemployment rate was only 5.6 percent that summer, almost one in five Americans lived in poverty. For black Americans, the situation was much more dire.  About half of African-Americans were in poverty – and were unemployed at over twice the rate of white Americans – something still true today.

None of the employment figures include people who had given up looking for a job or who work only a few hours a week while looking for a better job. Last month, the U6 unemployment rate -- the unemployed, the discouraged and the underemployed -- is 14 percent.

Organizers of the March on Washington believed that getting people good jobs was key to helping their communities.

A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and one of the main organizers, said at the march:
We have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers black and white?
Today, Teamsters International Vice President Al Mixon echoed Randolph as he prepared to join tomorrow's March on Washington 50 years later.
I look at how far we've come and how far we have to go. It was about jobs then, it's about jobs now. 
Participants at the 1963 march demanded “a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.”

At that point, the only active job training program, the Manpower Development and Training Act, had been around for less than a year.  Only 200,000 people enrolled in the program. 

Today, 47 different federal programs that focus on job training are run through seven different departments. Most focus on a specific subset of the population: Farmworkers, Native Americans, veterans and youth all have multiple programs that offer basic employment help. Funding for all of the programs in 2009 totaled $18 billion, half of one percent of the total federal budget.  That represented a dramatic increase in funding over six years, and the current administration increased funding by a third since 2009.

The Department of Labor estimates that about 26 million people have worked with their programs that offer job training in the past year.  In January of this year alone, 22.7 million people were classified as truly unemployed - people who are unemployed (12.3 million), want work but have stopped searching for a job (2.4 million), or work part time because they can’t find full time employment (8.0 million).

Fifty years later, we still have plenty of marching to do.