Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., July 1, 2 or 3
Independence Day means more than July 4th fireworks, of course. It’s a day and a time when patriots mark the American Revolution, democracy and freedom.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, freedom should mean freedom from want as well as freedom from foreign rulers, and Independence Day should renew our appreciation for both legislative reforms and grassroots progress. A great grassroots action took place 79 years ago this week, when San Francisco longshoremen – on strike over preferential hiring and blacklisting – stood up to shipping companies and city officials who did their bidding. Recalled as “Bloody Thursday,” July 5, 1934, saw more than 100 strikers and supporters injured and two killed by authorities, setting off a long general strike encompassing northern California. In turn, that larger work stoppage resulted in arbitration, which helped longshoremen win their job action.
A year later to the day, Roosevelt signed Congress’ Wagner Act (the National Labor Relations Act), legislative action that stated that collective bargaining was in the national interest and that set in motion years of union organizing and greater prosperity.
Today, prosperity remains elusive – despite claims in Washington that the Great Recession is easing – and organized labor must increase its involvement, both grassroots and legislative, in the plight of the jobless and the poor. About 11.7 million Americans are jobless, which surely is a crisis, despite modest improvements here and there in the economy.
Business apologists and others point to a gain of 101,000 jobs in May, but the official U.S. unemployment rate is 7.6% – 9.1% in Illinois.
“We need more than 300,000 jobs per month to get to full employment by May 2016,” said Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute. “At the job growth rate of the last year, we will still have a deficit of 4.6 million jobs in May 2016, six months before the next presidential election.”
Further, hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans – one-third of the state – are now in poverty or on the brink, according to a report by the Social Impact Research Center of Heartland Alliance. That’s a 32.7% increase from 2007, from 11.9% then to 15% in 2011.
Statewide, “the share of Illinoisans who are poor or near poor is the highest it’s been in recent memory,” the center shows, “up from 25% in 2000, 27% in 1990 and 26% in 1980.”
Downstate, the statistics are grim. Here are numbers for area counties, according to the state and Heartland Alliance:
County / April jobless rate / Poverty rate
Fulton / 9.4% / 13.1%
Henderson / 6.0% / 12.0%
Henry / 6.8% / 10.2%
Knox / 7.9% / 20.2%
Livingston / 7.4% / 12.0%
McDonough / 6.4% / 20.3%
Mercer / 7.2% / 9.3%
Peoria / 8.4% / 18.3%
Tazewell / 7.7% / 11.3%
Warren / 6.1% / 14.2%
Woodford / 6.6% / 7.0%
Meanwhile – despite consumer prices remaining relatively stable – speculators once more drove up the cost of natural gas in Illinois, where it rose 49% from a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index.
What can working people do?
The late, great New York labor activist and writer Harry Kelber not long before he died suggested five actions:
* Insist on increasing the number of infrastructure projects and speed up the tempo of hiring the necessary work force,
* Establish an oversight committee to monitor the number of public-works projects that have been created and the number of people put to work,
* Demand that the Obama administration appoint a “czar” who would have overall responsibility for creating and preserving jobs,
* Open up discussion on whether we need a second economic stimulus package if the first one is not creating a sufficient number of jobs, and
* Establish close relations with the unemployed to involve them in the struggle for fair treatment of America’s working class.
Some of Kelber’s ideas require lobbying, some grassroots action, and it all seems like a lot of work.
But it would be a start.
Toward true independence.
[PICTURED: Graphic from Western New York Labor Today online newspaper]