Congress abandons millions of jobless

HAMDEN, Conn. – While the White House backed off empty job creation claims last week, machinists, teamsters, building trades, and municipal workers crowded into the Job Center here, angry at the failure of the Republican-controlled Congress to extend unemployment benefits at a time of high job loss.

They came at the invitation of Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). Carrying the fight for an extension of jobless benefits to the grass roots, DeLauro joined union leaders and unemployed workers who called on the U.S. Senate to vote for an extension, and President Bush to release the funds.

Linda Giagrande, a 56-year-old single mother who retired early from her 16-year position with the city of West Haven in order to avoid layoff, told her story of finding no new job, exhausting all her savings, and living without any income for the last month while trying to keep her daughter in college.

“It’s not about numbers,” DeLauro said. “It’s about people trying to get their kids through school, people making car payments, mortgage and rent payments. That’s what this is about.”

The fight takes place against the backdrop of the largest job loss since the depression of the 1930s. Nearly 3 million jobs, primarily in the manufacturing sector, have been lost since Bush took office. New jobs that have opened up are largely low-wage and nonunion. Nearly every state has suffered, including states the Midwest and the South, which have been hit especially hard. Official unemployment rates are highest for African Americans (10.5 percent), Latinos (7.3 percent), and teenagers (16.7 percent).

In his economic report of Feb. 10 Bush projected that anywhere from 2.6 to 3.8 million jobs will be created this year. Nine days later he was forced to retract the claims when U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow refused to endorse that projection. In December, an anemic 1,000 new jobs were created. Meeting the economic report’s projections would require 235,000-316,000 new jobs a month.

“The Republican argument that the economy is recovering quickly rings hollow for unemployed workers,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a press statement. “Behind the hype remains the reality that the nation remains mired in a deep job crisis. Tax breaks for the rich will not pay the mortgage and utility bills for the unemployed.”

For many workers, the need to change trade policies, invest in infrastructure repair, and create good jobs is the number one issue in the presidential election.

“On Labor Day, President Bush said he would level the playing field. Instead of improving conditions for those on the bottom, he meant lowering conditions for workers who have won gains,” said Lori Pelltier, secretary treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

Pelltier, who has for decades fought downsizing and layoffs as a union leader at the Pratt & Whitney division of United Technologies, thanked DeLauro for her efforts. Citing the ripple effect of losing 45,000 manufacturing jobs in the state in three years, Pelltier pointed to the layoffs of state and municipal workers.

DeLauro, who sits on the House budget committee, described the “breathtaking arrogance” of the testimony of Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, who admitted to openly encouraging employers to send jobs overseas on the basis that outsourcing is part of international trade.

“It was rather incredible that he came before the budget committee without a plan to create jobs in America,” she said.

Over 8 million workers are unemployed. In December, 1.9 million workers had been unemployed for 26 weeks or more. Two million unemployed stand to exhaust their benefits by June, the largest number in history, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Tina McQuiggan, Job Center program manager here, emphasized that once a worker becomes unemployed it is harder and harder to find another job. The number of Connecticut workers who exhausted 26 weeks of benefits without finding a job is up to 37.8 percent, and 70 percent were still without work after the 13-week extension in 2003.

Underscoring the need for a public campaign, DeLauro ripped Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) statement that the extension passed by the House would be deleted before reaching the president’s desk for signature. “That means the voices of 227 members of Congress who represent millions of people would go unheard,” she warned, urging those present to alert their organizations to “make your collective voices heard so we can do what’s right as a government.”

Also this week, the Bush administration came under fire for reclassifying fast food jobs into the manufacturing sector. “Bureaucratic shuffling ... does nothing to address the very real economic problems facing American workers,” Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) replied.

The author can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com. Terrie Albano contributed to this article.