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Long-term unemployed aim to become a political force

People who have exhausted their jobless benefits are pressing policymakers for more aid and joining together to call attention to their cause.

September 22, 2010|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

After his wife of 23 years pulls out of the driveway every morning to head to college, Scott Mathewson sits down at the computer in his apartment and talks to his unemployment group.

Mathewson, a San Jose electrician who has been out of work for more than two years, spends most days in an online chat room he created to lobby for another round of unemployment benefits. In this election year, he and other jobless workers are trying to turn the nation's 14.9 million unemployed into a political force.

"This has made me 110% more politically active," said Mathewson, 45, who in March exhausted his 99 weeks of jobless benefits, the maximum available.

Mathewson is part of a growing army of so-called 99ers, the estimated 3.5 million unemployed workers who will have fallen off the jobless benefit rolls by the end of the year. Their prospects for finding new work are dim. The U.S. economy continues to shed jobs and the national unemployment rate is 9.6%; the August jobless rate in California was 12.4%.

With their finances in tatters and little hope of finding work anytime soon, Mathewson and other 99ers are pressing policymakers for additional aid.

On Wednesday, Mathewson's group plans to join with 16 similar grass-roots, Internet-based organizations to blitz members of the U.S. Senate with faxes and e-mails. Calling themselves the American 99ers Union, they're urging lawmakers to approve a stalled bill granting an additional 20 weeks of benefits to long-term jobless workers in hard-hit states.

"You've had a lot of groups out there with the same end goal, an extension," said Gregg Rosen, an unemployed marketer from Pennsylvania who founded the umbrella group. "We thought, 'Let's start putting these groups together into one laser-focused group.'"

Rosen estimates that the 16 groups in the coalition are composed of 100,000 members from across the country. Whether they can mobilize the nation's jobless or sway public policy remains to be seen.

Few legislators or candidates this political season are championing efforts to extend unemployment benefits because of growing concerns over the size of the federal budget deficit. There's no powerful entity in Washington representing the jobless or the millions of Americans just getting by on part-time jobs. Many unemployed people are so strapped for cash that they've lost their Internet and phone service. Others spend so much time job hunting that they have little energy for political action.

"The jobless are not a lobbying group. There's no national association of the unemployed," said former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. "Most people who have lost a job think of themselves as very much alone."

Jobless worker Michael White, 58, said this is the time to band together. White, of Los Angeles, didn't follow politics until he lost his job as a video editor in June 2008. He's since founded the Unemployed Workers Action Group, which plans to participate in the fax and e-mail campaign Wednesday.

White helped organize an August rally on Wall Street that drew dozens of unemployed, some holding signs reading "The American Dream Has No Expiration Date" and "Where Are the Jobs?" The group encouraged 99ers to call their members of Congress about introducing legislation to grant an extension of unemployment benefits, called Tier 5, to those whose benefits have run out.

"They say you shouldn't vote on one issue, but my next vote is going to be based on this issue," White said. "When people are losing their homes, it's a very important issue by which to judge politicians."

On a recent weekday, about a dozen 99ers gathered online in the chat room of Mathewson the electrician to discuss the latest developments to extend benefits. Some complained about cuts to food stamp programs and the difficulty of finding low-cost housing. One woman said she planned to vote for her dog, Charlie, as a write-in candidate come November.

Cindy Paoletti, a 58-year-old Syracuse, N.Y., resident who has been out of work since December 2007, said she constantly watches C-SPAN, calls legislators and urges other to do the same.

"If something isn't done, I want to make sure the Democrats know we will all change our affiliation to Independent and they can join us in the unemployment line," Paoletti said to others.

Even if their work doesn't result in additional benefits, some 99ers said the group at least gives them a sense of purpose and belonging.

Denver resident Kelly Wiedemer lost her job in financial services in July 2008. Now she logs frequently into unemployment forums and writes for citizen journalism site Examiner.com about joblessness.

"This is the forum where I knew I wasn't alone, where I could learn more about how big the problem was," Wiedemer said.

Mathewson agreed. "It's not just a lobbying group, it's also a support group," he said. "We keep each other from blowing our brains out."

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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