Unemployed to Congress: Give us our jobless pay

WASHINGTON – Hundreds of jobless workers picketed the Labor Department and then marched to Capitol Hill on May 13 to demand that Congress approve another 26-week extension in unemployment compensation for 4.5 million workers who are running out of benefits.

The protest, sponsored by the AFL-CIO and by a coalition of groups fighting for jobs or income, came eight days before Temporary Emergency Unemployment Compensation (TEUC) runs out on May 31. Leaders of the march charged that House GOP leaders have repeatedly killed amendments sponsored by Democrats to further extend benefits as joblessness soars to a nine year high.

“These checks pay my rent,” said one placard carried by an unemployed worker who came here with a busload from the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. “Tax cuts: the rich get richer, the poor poorer,” read another.

The United Steelworkers of America (USWA) brought busloads from York and Reading, Pa., and from the ISG steel plant at Sparrows Point, Md. There were also contingents from UNITE, the Communications Workers of America, and the Glassworkers. “Who needs a pink slip? Bush needs a pink slip!” the crowd chanted as they picketed outside the Labor Department.

As he marched, USWA President Leo Gerard told the World, “Since Bush became President, we’ve lost an average of 263 jobs per hour.”

“It is unconscionable that he would be giving tax breaks to the rich,” Gerard continued, “while we have to lobby here for extending unemployment benefits. Close to 4.5 million workers have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks and face loss of their jobless benefits unless Congress acts.”

The march ended in a rally in Senate Park. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, “President Bush and some in Congress don’t seem to understand that tax cuts for the privileged few will not create the jobs you need, will not help the states recover from the recession.”

He denounced Bush for embracing a “failed economic policy that has already cost us two million jobs. But Bush is pushing ahead with the same playbook, pushing ahead with another tax cut for the rich. He couldn’t be more wrong. What we need is an economic policy that creates decent jobs immediately.” Bush’s policy of terminating jobless benefits while handing huge tax cuts for the rich is “economic sabotage,” Sweeney charged.

Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) touched off boos when he announced that an hour earlier, the Republican leadership again blocked his amendment, co-sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), to extend the TEUC program beyond June 1 with another 26-week extension of benefits. His measure would also extend jobless pay for another 13 weeks for workers who have already exhausted an earlier extension without finding a new job, and would provide $40 billion in emergency assistance to states with huge deficits.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has introduced a similar package in the Senate. Because Congress plans to recess for the Memorial Day weekend and TEUC is scheduled to expire May 31, protesters point out that Congress must pass an extension right away.

Peter Roman-Friedman, USWA legislative representative, told the World, “The Republicans have blocked extensions of jobless benefits at least ten times on both procedural and substantive grounds, both in committee and on the House floor. The situation for millions of longterm unemployed is really dire.”

Vera Matty, who worked nine years as an executive assistant and office receptionist in Long Island City, N.Y., told the World, “I lost my job Nov. 16, 2001. I was on unemployment compensation for a while but then it ran out. That means I have no income and no job. I live on borrowed money. I am a historian. I know how hard it is to change things. It takes a hard fight.”

Bob Polanowski, who retired after 38 years at Sparrows Point, said steelworkers who retire now face cuts in their pensions and health care benefits. Steelworkers and others laid off across the nation, he said, “are being shortchanged by the government. Look at how much they are spending in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Iraq: hundreds of billions. Yet workers here have to fight to get their benefits. Our infrastructure needs to be rebuilt, roads, bridges, water and sewerage systems. There ought to be plenty of jobs.”

Regina McDonald came with a busload from the Bronx. “Yes, I’m unemployed,” she told the World. “I was a counselor in the prison system in New York. I am the single mother of four children. I am about to run out of benefits and I have no other income of any kind. I really need this extension of benefits.”

The Bush administration is cutting jobs, McDonald said, “cutting programs that help people. All those poor soldiers in Iraq will come back after risking their lives to find that veterans’ benefits have been cut and there are no jobs. Maybe they will end up on welfare.”

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com