WASHINGTON – Hundreds of steelworkers, hotel and restaurant employees and others who have lost their jobs in the deepening recession gathered on the U.S. Capitol grounds Dec. 12.

They denounced an “economic stimulus” package backed by George W. Bush and rammed through the House by the Texas GOP leaders, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay that would give $100 billion in tax gifts to the rich. The protesters demanded that the U.S. Senate block this giveaway and approve a package that assists the unemployed.

“We didn’t create this recession,” said John Dodds, leader of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, initiator of the protest. “We deserve government help until the jobs are back … We demand help for the unemployed.”

Also joining the protest were members of several Philadelphia union locals, including jobless hotel and restaurant workers, members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 274.

Lorraine Hays said to the crowd that until she was laid off recently, she had never been unemployed in her years as a waitress and hotel worker in Philadelphia.”When I look out here at all of you I say, ‘26 weeks of unemployment benefits is not enough!’”

The crowd was swelled by steelworkers who set up a tent city at the AFL-CIO’s Meany Center outside the Washington beltway. They have scheduled a series of protest rallies and grass-roots lobbying to demand that Bush and Congress save the U.S. steel industry from a total collapse. More than 18 steel companies have declared bankruptcy and tens of thousands of steelworkers are laid off.

Dave York, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 7367 in Hennepin, Ill., told the World that the 600 workers in his local are all unemployed. Currently, they receive supplemental unemployment benefits. “But it will end soon,” he said. “Congress must provide assistance now.”

At the rally, York called on Congress to approve funds to force LTV to keep producing steel. “We can’t allow LTV to take this money and run,” he said. “If we get this money for LTV, we’ll take control. We’ll run the steel mills.”

Mike Hannah, a jobless steelworker from Birmingham, Ala., said the maximum benefit in his state is $190 per week. He must pay $529 per month for health care benefits and $520 monthly for his disabled wife’s medication. “We want Congress to pass legislation that provides immediate relief for those of us who are unemployed,” he said. “I don’t think giving IBM a $1.4 billion tax giveaway will create a single job.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney echoed this sentiment. “When more than eight million workers are out of work, Congress should ask: ‘What can we do to help the unemployed?’ But all we hear from them is: ‘What can we do to give billions to the rich?’ They deny there is an emergency. We are here today to say, ‘Yes! This is an emergency.’”

The rally coalition released a list of demands, including a doubling the number of weeks that jobless benefits are provided to 52 weeks and a 25 percent increase in benefits, or an additional $65 per week. The protesters also called for broader eligibility to protect the 61 percent of the unemployed who are currently denied benefits.

The list of demands also included expanded health care coverage, a lifting of lifetime limits on welfare, mortgage and rental assistance, an improved food stamp program, including restoration of benefits for legal immigrants, an increase in the minimum wage and a public works jobs program.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) drew cheers when he blasted the House GOP leadership for stiff-arming jobless workers. “It’s wrong to pay the greedy and not take care of the needy,” he said.

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) reminded the crowd of the decimated taconite miners on the Iron Range in his state and said the focus must be on job creation.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said the House Democrats had presented a package that increased unemployment benefits by $65 per week and extended them for an additional 13 weeks. It also extended health care benefits for jobless workers and their families. But, McDermott said, “They turned us down flat.”