Fifty-one people with 51 stories of their jobless dilemmas hit the road March 24 on an AFL-CIO-sponsored “Show us the jobs” bus tour. Starting off from St. Louis, workers, students, clergy, retirees and web activists will travel throughout the Midwest to Washington, D.C. to highlight the real economic situation facing millions of the jobless and underemployed and the working poor.

“I think we need to get the word out there that the economy is not as rosy as people are saying,” Kevin Gregory, 41, of Millinocket, Maine, told reporters. After 17 years at a paper mill Gregory was laid off in January 2003. He and his family now rely on food banks. “I’ve had to swallow my pride and get help,” Gregory said.

The bus tour counters efforts by Bush and administration officials to promote – under the slogan “Jobs and Growth” – tax cuts for the rich, which has resulted in a “jobless recovery.” Stops are planned in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, all considered “battleground states” that could determine who wins the White House in November. Jobs is one of the top issues among the voters.

Currently there are 8.3 million jobless – officially. Lack of jobs has caused another 2.8 million workers to either drop out, or not enter the labor market, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The long-term unemployment level is the worst in 20 years; 22.1 percent of the jobless were out of work for six months or more in 2003.

The plight faced by the long-term unemployed has been aggravated by the Republican-controlled Congress, which refused to extend unemployment benefits last December even though $17 billion sits in the Federal Unemployment Trust Fund. Benefits have run out for over three-quarters of a million people. The number is expected to grow to 2 million by mid-year. Nine states have set new records for the number of workers who have exhausted their state unemployment benefits.

The unemployment figures among African American men are especially grave. A study by the New York-based Community Service Society found only 52 percent of Black men ages 16-64 held jobs in New York City in 2003. It was 76 percent for white men, 66 percent for Hispanic men and 57 percent for Black women. Researchers in the field said these findings are consistent with Midwestern cities.

Racism in hiring during this tough “jobless recovery” was highlighted in a recent study that found that white men with prison records were more likely to be hired than Black men without prison records. The disproportionate jobless rate on Black families has not been a major issue in the election campaign, so far, although African Americans are an important base for the Democratic and anti-Bush coalition.

The AFL-CIO issued a special report and “toolkit” on jobs, which projects a nine-point job creation program. The toolkit and the bus tour emphasize “outsourcing” as the reason for loss of jobs, although most economists point to “labor-saving” technology as the main obstacle to job growth. For the AFL-CIO jobs toolkit go to www.aflcio.org or call (202) 637-5010.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org.

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