CHICAGO — Eight thousand Pillowtex workers were thrown out of work a year ago when the textile giant shut its doors. Most are still out of work and will soon lose their unemployment benefits. Forty-three percent of them were behind in their rent or mortgage as of last fall, and a tenth had received foreclosure or eviction notices. Ninety-three percent say they can’t find affordable health care.
Joan Moton of Eden, N.C., the former president of the Pillowtex UNITE local, was one of several workers who told their stories to Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards this week at the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council meeting here.
The government’s latest job reports only confirm what Moton and other ordinary Americans already knew: under George W. Bush’s CEO-friendly policies, conditions are getting worse, not better, for working families. “Bush has made a mess of this,” AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said in Chicago.
In response, the nation’s unions have suspended business-as-usual, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told reporters at the Executive Council meeting Aug. 10. Hundreds of AFL-CIO staff have headed out into the field, joining thousands of rank-and-filers knocking on doors across the country to turn out the vote.
The Labor Department’s July figures show job creation is stagnant, and long-time workers are losing their jobs at the highest rate on record.
There were 1.7 million long-term unemployed workers in July, up from 660,000 in January 2001. For those laid-off workers lucky enough to land a new full-time job, 57 percent earned less in their new job — their median weekly pay was 16 percent lower than at their old job.
Nationally only 32,000 new jobs were reported in July, following a skimpy 78,000 increase in June. These make a mockery of Bush’s claim that his 2003 tax-cuts for the rich would create 5.5 million jobs by the end of this year (306,000 a month). The largest growth was in low-paying jobs with few or no benefits.
Joblessness among African Americans and Latinos has increased — more than one in 10 African Americans and one in 14 Latinos are jobless. Overall unemployment remains essentially unchanged at 5.5 percent.
For those with jobs, paychecks have not kept up with inflation. Workers’ real weekly and hourly wages are lower now than they were in November 2001, when the so-called economic “recovery” began, the Economic Policy Institute reports.
Economic insecurity, the health care crisis, and deepening discontent over the Iraq war are fueling frustration and anger that is sparking grassroots anti-Bush voter activity across the country.
“It’s not just one thing,” Arizona AFL-CIO Community Services Director Jim Watson said. “It’s people’s right to protect overtime, it’s cuts in funding for first responders, it’s ‘No Child Left Behind,’ — there’s a lot of doublespeak by this administration.”
Arizona’s manufacturing base in mining has taken “a big hit,” and the low-paid call center jobs that have come into the area are “modern-day sweatshops,” Watson said.
Working families, the unemployed and underemployed, “just can’t pay the light bills, don’t know where to turn when they can’t pay their mortgage,” he told the World. The government’s jobless figures don’t report people who have given up, whose unemployment insurance ran out, who just don’t report in, he said.
Tucson neighborhoods are being saturated with voter registration and mail-in ballot canvassers from a variety of progressive groups, local activist Joe Bernick told the World.
Undeterred by Tucson’s 100-plus degree August heat, union members have kicked off neighborhood “labor walks,” knocking on union households’ doors, talking to them about issues, educating them about what’s at stake in the Nov. 2 vote. On Aug. 21, area union leaders and Rep. Raul Grijalva will headline a Working Families Boot Camp to mobilize rank-and-file involvement.
Watson, the 2004 Tucson labor coordinator, sees a “very increased level of interest” in the presidential elections this year, with more volunteers coming out. People are “sick and tired,” he said. “They don’t believe this administration has lived up to its promises.” The election of Grijalva and Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano in 2002 showed people their votes can bring results, Watson said. “They think their vote matters.”
In Ohio, young hip-hop activists are organizing a fall bus tour to small colleges in isolated spots around the state. The hip-hoppers will tell students why they need to get out to vote.
One thing that stands out for this generation, Ohio Hip-Hop Political Assembly coordinator Angie Woodson said, is the Iraq war. They see the cost of the war leading to cuts in education funding and tuition increases, and they’re nervous about possible reintroduction of the draft. “They are staying in school because there are no jobs. They don’t know how they are going to pay back their student loans. They are frightened and angry,” she told the World.
The hip-hop generation is “anywhere from 18 to 40, but goes beyond,” said Woodson. “It’s a rainbow effect. The music pulls everyone under one umbrella, color-blind, all social classes, people who have been incarcerated, high school dropouts, college students.”
The multi-racial Ohio group has 68 members organizing in every city in the state, she said. It is part of a growing hip-hop political activist movement that drew wide attention with a National Hip-Hop Political Convention this June in Newark, N.J. It will announce a national agenda at the Washington Press Club Aug. 19.
“The level of motivation, the energy, is phenomenal,” Woodson said.
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Roberta Wood contributed to this story.click here for Spanish text