The community organizing affiliate of the AFL-CIO is coordinating with state labor groups to hold monthly meetings of the unemployed in five U.S. cities, in hopes of connecting the jobless with helpful resources and involving them in local politics.
Hundreds of jobless Working America members (and non-members) have attended meetings in Portland, Ore.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Denver, Colo.; Pittsburgh, Pa. and Minneapolis, Minn., officials said. The meetings, which began in February, are part of a campaign called "America Wants to Work," aimed at helping struggling workers at a time when public officials are more focused on slashing spending on social programs and taking away collective bargaining rights.
"We just want to help folks," Chelsey Evans, state director of Working America in New Mexico, told HuffPost. "We’ve had several meetings and we’re coming together to provide services and support to anyone in the community who is unemployed. We’re finding that a lot of people really struggle to navigate through this extremely complex system, whether it’s unemployment, rental assistance, utility assistance, job counseling."
Evans said that of Working America's 98,000 members in New Mexico, some 11,000 are unemployed. Working America is launching the New Mexico Wants to Work campaign in collaboration with the New Mexico Federation of Labor, the United Way of Central New Mexico, and the Central New Mexico Central Labor Council.
Susan See, laid off early in 2009 from her job doing advertising and administrative work for a local newspaper in Albuquerque, said the New Mexico Wants to Work monthly meetings have been a big help. She's doing some freelance photography while her search for full-time work grinds on, seemingly endlessly.
"It helps a lot just to have a support network, just to know that I’m not alone," said See, 41. "It starts to feel after a while, 'What am I doing wrong? Is it my age, is it because I’ve been out of work so long?' And then you start hearing that from other people, that they’re having the same issues."
Bob Tackett, executive secretary-treasurer of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, said about 70 people showed up at the first Oregon Wants to Work meeting in February, and that turnout's diminished slightly at subsequent meetings, which Tackett said has been disappointing. At the second gathering of the jobless, Tackett said, "I got one of the managers from the unemployment office to be there and answer some of their questions. I thought boy, this is good stuff."
Working America member Teresa Berlin of Portland said she's been at every meeting. "It’s kind of like a support system as a well as a political activist thing," she said. Berlin, 37, said she lost her job as a server at a restaurant in 2007. She's been scraping by with part-time work as a cab driver, unemployment insurance, and rental income since then. "I rent out all the rooms in my house to pay the mortgage," she said. "I have five roommates."
Berlin said she's networked with other unemployed folks, some of whom seem to be struggling more than she is. "There’s a lot of people that are really depressed, that feel isolated," she said. "One woman had been putting out resumes for a year and hadn’t got one single interview. I’m really blessed compared to a lot of people."
The America Wants to Work campaign is reminiscent of Working America's effort last year to mobilize its unemployed members ahead of the midterm elections in November. Among the group's 3 million members, half a million are jobless, according to a spokeswoman.