The preceding commentary, “Fighting the Great Depression – From Below,” described the grassroots action by employed and unemployed workers in the early years of the Great Depression. This commentary and the subsequent ones tell how, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and developing Coronavirus Depression, millions of people are experimenting with ways to address their problems through collective action. These commentaries are designed to provide background about grassroots response to depression conditions for the continuing series on the Emergency Green New Deal. This is the first in a three-part series called “Mass Action in the Coronavirus Depression.” To hear the audio version, click here >>
Forty million people or more have lost their jobs since the beginning of March. Including those not actively looking for work, nearly half of adults are jobless. While some of those initially laid off have returned to work, others who thought their layoffs were temporary have been reclassified as fired permanently. Professor Steven J. Davis of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business estimates that 42% of recent pandemic-induced layoffs will result in permanent job loss.
The level of unemployment is now comparable to the Great Depression – but it took barely two months instead of three years to get there. And because it was triggered by a pandemic, the response to today’s depression differs significantly from the response to the Great Depression described in the previous commentary.
In the Coronavirus Depression lockdowns, social distancing and other public health measures have presented unfamiliar barriers to many of the forms of collective action seen in the Great Depression. And in contrast to the early years of the Great Depression, in 2020 the federal government moved quickly to provide expanded unemployment benefits and supplemental payments as well as a $1200 “helicopter payment” to most individuals as part of a series of stimulus packages. Although the lion’s share of federal largesse went to large corporations and financial institutions, the promise of these payments retarded initial mass organizing of the unemployed. Indeed, a Brookings study found that poverty actually decreased in April and May, the months following the start of the pandemic. The entire decline in poverty for April and May can be accounted for by the one-time stimulus checks the federal government sent out during these months and the expansion of unemployment insurance eligibility and benefits.
Getting access to unemployment and other benefits has been a different story. This year, millions of people have been unable to get through to unemployment offices despite dozens or even hundreds of phone calls. Millions more were unable to get their applications accepted. And many who managed to apply faced long delays before their payments were actually received.
The initial organizing of the unemployed has largely occurred in response to these frustrations with the process of applying for benefits. Online communities developed on Facebook, Reddit, and other social media platforms to provide advice and camaraderie to those having trouble with their applications. For example, a mother of three named Cyara Neel was furloughed from her job at a go-kart track in Las Vegas. When she applied for unemployment, an alert popped up that blocked her application from being processed– but the website offered no clear way to resolve the problem. She ended up creating a Facebook group to help Nevada residents applying for unemployment benefits. Her group gained nearly 7,000 members in a week. She recruited nine additional moderators to help. By early April they were fielding 200 comments per hour. 
The New York Times reported that many such groups developed around the country. Some are geographical, covering states or regions like the “Louisiana Coronavirus Unemployment Legal Advice Group.” Others cover occupations like recreation vehicle workers, dog walkers, delivery workers, restaurant employees, court reporters, and Cheesecake Factory workers in Las Vegas.
At times, these networks have spilled over into organized protest. In Zephyrhills, Florida, a 59-year-old bartender named Kim Donley got laid off and tried to apply for unemployment compensation, but she found, “You call the phone numbers and all you get is ‘we can’t take your call right now.’” She learned from social media that lots of other people were having the same experience. She discovered a Facebook page called “action group for COVID-19 unemployment” founded by Kelly Powell and decided to organize a protest with them.
We’re going to drive to Tallahassee on Monday at 2 p.m. We’re going to meet at the Capitol because we’re all coming from all parts of Florida. We’re not going to get out of our cars. We’re just going to drive around holding signs out the window. Try to get some attention to this situation.
At the same time they planned to host a virtual protest on the Facebook page for those who can’t drive to the Capitol. And that was just a start. On May 1, for example, a Florida newspaper reported,
Unemployed Floridians who’ve spent weeks navigating the broken system are now taking to the street to protest. A caravan of unemployment protesters drove up and down Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa on Friday, honking their horns with signs hanging from their cars. Many of the protesters Friday say they’ve run out of money and are living on credit cards and charity from relatives. They’ve gone six weeks without any unemployment benefits and say they’re getting desperate. “I am losing my home, I am borrowing money from family to get groceries,” said Julia Shear of St. Petersburg. “I had to go and get $20 from my daughter to go get $13 of supplies to make this sign. It’s ridiculous and it’s criminal.” Powell says she’s not stopping until everyone gets paid.
In Philadelphia in March, a coalition of local labor unions, worker organizations, and public interest law firms organized a campaign for a city $5-10 million emergency fund for workers left out of state and federal relief efforts, such as undocumented workers and those in the “cash economy.” They also called for an expansion of the city’s paid sick leave law. They held a “digital low-wage worker town hall meeting” with laid-off low-wage workers as speakers that was attended by 400 on-line participants. Ten of the 17 members of the City Council attended the digital town hall, and many said they supported local relief efforts for low-wage workers. The Mayor’s spokesperson, however, said such a fund was not possible given the city’s resources. May 21 the Philadelphia Unemployment Project organized a “virtual town hall for the unemployed” via Zoom to “get involved to put pressure on the governor and the Department of Labor to release our benefits now!”
Harbingers of Things to Come?
No doubt the future course of action by the unemployed will depend greatly on the future course of the Coronavirus Depression and the measures taken to counter and ameliorate it, which in turn will heavily depend on the course of the pandemic itself. But there is little reason to think either the pandemic or its economic consequences are going to go away any time soon.
Unemployed workers are even more structurally disempowered than those who remain in the workplace. They cannot strike, engage in slowdowns, directly confront a boss, or engage in other forms of concerted action on the job. Yet, as we saw in the previous commentary “Fighting the Great Depression – From Below” [link] in a time of mass unemployment and misery with government aid blocked the unemployed developed ways to exercise power through organization and direct action. Hunger marches, demonstrations, occupations of state capitols, confrontations with police and national guard led cities and states and eventually the federal government to provide relief funds, public works jobs, and unemployment insurance. The action of the unemployed put significant pressure on government officials, labor leaders, and social workers that eventually changed government policy. The social dynamite represented by millions of impoverished, angry unemployed helped make radical change seem both necessary and possible. And the movement of the unemployed laid much of the groundwork for the public policy changes and labor organization of the years that followed.
In addition to the usual obstacles to organization of the unemployed, the Coronavirus Depression presents significant additional barriers. Public health restrictions like social distancing and banning of gatherings make demonstrations, occupations, and other direct action tactics difficult – though, as we have seen, not impossible. The unemployed can’t strike, but they can use socially-distanced and on-line demonstrations, rent strikes, boycotts, self-help, and other tactics.
The unemployed have shown a capacity for rapid formation and mobilization of networks. They have made effective responses to immediate needs, such as unemployment compensation delays and snafus. So far these have not had mass participation – only a small minority of the unemployed have been involved. The networks have generally involved particular localities, states, and industries, though a coalition of left groups tried to promote nationwide action around May Day. There is so far little definition of common goals or a common identity as unemployed – hardly surprising considering how new mass unemployment is.
Common interests and the elements of a common program for the unemployed are not hard to envision. The unemployed need to resist pressure to go back to work prematurely under unsafe conditions – and to be protected from retaliation if they refuse to do so. “Nonessential” workers need acknowledgement that by not going to nonessential jobs they are making a sacrifice that helps keep everyone safe. That sacrifice needs to be recognized in some form of income maintenance – what has been called a “social distancing wage.” They need to have a voice in shaping future stimulus packages and to ensure their passage. They need free food, shelter, utilities, and medical care — or the cash to pay for them.
Most of the organization and self-organization of the unemployed so far appears to have focused on overcoming the obstacles to actually getting the relief being offered by state programs and federal stimulus packages, and their denial to specific groups like immigrants and gig workers. Surprisingly, there appears to have been little action so far by the unemployed to affect the contents of proposed future stimulus packages or to ensure their passage. Networks of unemployed in various regions and industries have developed; whether they will become a vehicle for affecting federal stimulus policy remains to be seen.
In the early 1930s, the movements of the unemployed forced local, state, and national governments to make efforts, however inadequate, to address the needs of the unemployed. Whether their needs are addressed in the Coronavirus Depression is likely to depend largely on whether the unemployed organize themselves to demand it.
 Yun Li, “Coronavirus: Nearly half the U.S. population is without a job.” CNBC, June 29, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/29/nearly-half-the-us-population-is-without-a-job-showing-how-far-the-labor-recovery-has-to-go.html
 “Jeff Rose, $600 Federal Unemployment Checks To Be Extended?” Forbes, July 6, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jrose/2020/07/06/600-federal-unemployment-checks-to-be-extended/#4ef485c3778f
 Colleen Sharkey, “New poverty measure confirms coronavirus-driven federal stimulus measures were effective,” phys.org, June 22, 2020. https://phys.org/news/2020-06-poverty-coronavirus-driven-federal-stimulus-effective.html
 Caitlin Dickerson, “These Groups Are Giving Out Unemployment Advice,” New York Times, April 9, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/us/coronavirus-unemployment-workers-sites.html
 Caitlin Dickerson, Ibid
 Josh Rojas, “Pasco Woman Fed Up With Unemployment System Organizes Protest,” April 15, 2020. https://www.baynews9.com/fl/tampa/news/2020/04/15/pasco-woman-fed-up-with-unemployment-system-organizes-protest
 Josh Rojas, “Protesters Take to Tampa Street Over Florida Unemployment Woes,” Spectrum News1, May 1, 2020. https://www.ny1.com/nyc/queens/news/2020/05/01/protesters-take-to-tampa-street-over-florida-unemployment-woes
 Juliana Feliciano Reyes, “Why Philly workers are fighting for a local coronavirus relief fund,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 26, 2020. https://www.inquirer.com/jobs/labor/coronavirus-workers-layoffs-unemployment-philadelphia-relief-fund-20200326.html
 “PUP Virtual Town Hall for the Unemployed,” https://www.facebook.com/events/867022870440681/?active_tab=about
 Mark Engler and Andrew Elrod, “The Case for a Social Distancing Wage,” New Republic, March 16, 2020. https://democracyuprising.com/2020/03/16/the-case-for-a-social-distancing-wage/