Some 200 unemployed workers converged on Capitol Hill, Washington DC, on Thursday to demand that Congress act immediately to extend unemployment insurance to those whose benefits are due to expire, but who remain unemployed in what has been termed a ‘jobless recovery’.
Unless Congress reauthorises the federal unemployment insurance programme before December 31, millions of Americans will find themselves with no income at all, warned the AFL-CIO union federation.
‘This issue challenges the soul of America,’ said Representative Sander Levin (D-Michigan) at a rally at the US Capitol Building, where workers from varied walks of life described how the loss of their jobs is affecting their families and even their communities.
‘This isn’t a subject for horse-trading,’ Levin added, ‘it’s a subject for action.’
Levin is the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
The workers joined Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), to deliver some 75,000 petitions signed by Americans calling for the reauthorisation of federal unemployment insurance through 2012 – with a vote before the December 31st expiration.
The petitions were organised by the AFL-CIO, NELP/Unemployedworkers.org, USAction and MomsRising.org.
The event, says the union federation, marked the beginning of ‘a week-long series of actions by labour and our progressive allies to demand Congress extend unemployment insurance coverage that will culminate with a December 8th event in which unemployed workers will rally on Capitol Hill’.
Secretary of Labour Hilda Solis implored Congress to act, explaining that allowing unemployment benefits to expire affects not only out-of-work people and their families, but the economy at large, since unemployment checks are plowed right back into the community for purchases of life’s necessities, as well as the payment of mortgages and car loans.
Solis said: ‘There are those in Congress who say we can’t afford to extend unemployment benefits and the payroll tax (holiday) in the current fiscal environment.
‘I say we can’t afford not to…It’s the American thing to do.’
Jill Fleming-Salopek, a 40-year-old teacher from Munhall, Penn., explained how local and state-level budget cuts led to her school district laying off one-third of its staff — including her.
She said: ‘I’m here for the children who are suffering because of this situation.’
Fleming-Salopek choked up as she recounted how she was the first in her family to go to college, noting that she’s still paying for her education.
She has a master’s degree and three children, and said she cannot find a job comparable to the one she lost.
Several speakers noted that there are four unemployed workers vying for each job that becomes available.
Following her at the podium were David DiCarlo, 45, of Baltimore, who had worked in the mortgage industry; Tony Federico, a bricklayer from the Bronx; and former transit worker Vincent Brandon, 47, of Pittsburgh, who said that if his benefits are allowed to expire, ‘I’d likely be homeless within a few months.’
Brandon is a caregiver to his five-year-old daughter, a war veteran and a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85.
DiCarlo said that he had applied for ‘hundreds of jobs’ since he was laid off in March, but, he said, holding up two fingers, has been granted only that many interviews.
Many lawmakers, all Democrats, also called on Congress to reauthorise the unemployment extension program, including Republican Steny Hoyer (Md), the House Minority Whip, and House members Danny K Davis (Ill), Rosa DeLauro (Conn), Lloyd Doggett (Texas), Barbara Lee (Calif), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), John Lewis (Ga), Jim McDermott (Wa), Charles Rangel (NY) and Robert C Scott (Va).
Workers also heard from Senators Jack Reed (RI), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), and Tom Harkin (Iowa), who promised that he would ensure that the Senate did not leave for Christmas recess without taking a vote on the reauthorisation bill.
In a statement last Wednesday, the AFL-CIO warned: ‘The House this evening passed (235-188) legislation (HR 3094) that gives employers new tools to combat and delay elections by workers who try to form unions.
‘Dubbed the Election Prevention Act by Rep George Miller (D-Calif), the bill is the congressional Republican effort to block some modest rule changes proposed earlier this year by the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) to reduce unnecessary litigation and modernise the way union elections are conducted.’
Miller says the bill’s ‘singular goal is to delay’ and ultimately prevent union representation elections.
The AFL-CIO stressed: ‘Its aim is to deny workers the opportunity for a voice at work.
‘House Republican leaders claim the legislation is part of their jobs creation agenda, although they’ve never been able to explain how trampling workers’ rights to fair elections creates jobs.
‘It’s actually part of an overall attack on workers’ rights, the NLRB and essential workplace safety and health and environmental rules.
‘While they have refused to pass jobs legislation this year, congressional Republicans have made nearly 50 separate assaults on the NLRB since January by proposing bills to gut the agency’s oversight and funding, holding hearings and issuing subpoenas, according to American Rights at Work (ARAW).’
Earlier Wednesday, at a special AFL-CIO forum that examined the Republican attacks on workers’ rights and the NLRB, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said: ‘Make no mistake about it. Their goal is to reduce power of working people across the country and incapacitate the board.
‘At a meeting today, the NLRB voted 2 to 1 to move ahead with a final rule for most provisions of the proposed union elections rules.’