With heavy defections from Blue Dog Democrats, the House of Representatives still narrowly passed Wednesday evening 217 to 212 a $154 billion jobs package. It included funds for states to retain front-line workers, aid to the unemployed and transportation projects.
But a jobs bill has yet to be voted on in the Senate, where it’s likely to be viewed more skeptically and reduced in scope in the absence of a major grass-roots campaign. Political activism becomes even more urgent, because a combination of continuing high unemployment and the transitioning of people in and out of jobs could mean that as many as a third of the workforce could be unemployed or undermployed in 2010, according to Lawrence Mishel, director of the Economic Policy Institute.
That’s why a potentially powerful 60-group liberal coalition, Jobs For America Now!, announced earlier Wednesday, becomes especially important. Its leaders are proposing a far more ambitious $400 billion proposal, based in part on plans put forward in the last several weeks by the AFL-CIO and other progressive and civil-rights organizations.
(The full story of the progressive drive for jobs creation can be read here at Truthout.org.)
There’s no doubt that they face an uphill battle to get ambitious jobs legislation through Congress. There was, after all, that close vote yesterday in the House, right-wing propaganda about the failings of the first $787 billion stimulus (it actually saved or created up to 1.6 million jobs), and the spread of an aggressive “deficit hawk” mentality to conservative Democrats.
Even so, Thea Lee, the deputy chief of staff of the AFL-CIO, outlined the themes unifying the organizations: “Across the country, working Americans are calling for urgent action on the jobs crisis, and this action must be on a scale to match the crisis. We must also focus on fundamentally transforming our economy so we never face this type of crisis again — reforming our labor laws, our trade policy, and our financial system to restore needed balance.”
During the debate over the jobs bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) declared on the House floor, “This legislation brings jobs to Main Street by increasing credit for small businesses, rebuilding the infrastructure of America, and keeping police and fireman and teachers on the job. As we create jobs for Americans, we are doing so in a fiscally responsible way. These investments are fully paid for by redirecting TARP funds from Wall Street to Main Street.”
With every single Republican voting no, she defiantly pointed out how far the American economy had come under the Obama administration even as joblessness is still rampant. “There were 740,000 jobs lost in the first month of this year compared to 11,000 last month. We’re on the road to recovery…We’re creating jobs for Main Street, not just wealth for Wall Street,” she said. “This legislation creates jobs, helps meet the needs of those who are unemployed, and puts us America back on a path to prosperity.”
Action can’t come too soon, and our obstructionist legislators would do well to listen to the plight of the unemployed as powerfully described in James McMurtry’s song, “We Can’t Make It Here.” Even though it was written during the Bush era, it’s all too applicable now:
The groups and leaders featured in the press conference call Wednesday before the vote were almost a Who’s Who of American Liberalism. They included the Campaign for America ‘s Future; Anna Burger, the chair of Change to Win;, the veteran organizer Alan Charney of the grass-roots advocacy group,US Action, and the coalition’s interim director; Benjamin Todd Jealous, the NAACP President;and Wider Opportunities for Women. The importance of the coalition goes beyond the specifics of their proposals to their commitment to provide grass-roots muscle in all 50 states to push for jobs legislation in the tough struggle ahead, especially in the Senate. And that’s what’s been missing before on this issue: united activism around jobs which could, potentially, have more diverse grass-roots support in 2010 than health care reform did this year.
The importance of the new coalition was underscored by an aide to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill), who co-chairs the bipartisan Jobs Now! Congerssional caucus. The aide told Truthout: “These are the A-List groups. If that coalition steps up to the plate, they’ll bring plenty of resource capacity: polling, lobbying, putting pressure on the usual suspects.” Right now, though, the staffer observed, “Clearly everyone’s focused on pushing health care across the finish line, and that’s not even done. After that, everyone will be talking about jobs, jobs, jobs — at least until November.”
So, despite the narrow vote on Wednesday, there’s some realistic hope that a combination of continuing unemployment, grass-roots organizing and political necessity could push through meaningful jobs legislation — and the Pelosi-backed bill is considered a very good start.
After Wednesday’s vote, union leader Anna Burger declared:
Our jobs crisis cannot be solved by one bill alone. But today the House demonstrated the bold and swift leadership the American people demand. It’s time to provide relief to the millions of workers who get up each morning and scour the help wanted ads in the hopes of finding a good job that can support a family. Congress today made an essential first step to invest in programs to immediately put people back to work…
But our work is far from over. Our leaders must continue to work non-stop to pass a comprehensive jobs agenda that puts millions of Americans back to work today and makes strategic investments to create the jobs that Americans will need in the future.
The biggest differences between the House-passed measure and the progressive-backed proposals are the sheer amount of spending and the absence in the current House bill of public sector job creation targeting hard-hit communities. As described by the coalition, this jobs-creation provision — which could create one million new jobs with $40 billion in federal funding, according to Rep. Keith Ellison (D–Minn.) — is a vital one. The group’s call to action describes its importance:
We can directly create jobs that put people to work helping communities meet pressing needs, including in distressed communities facing severe unemployment. These initiatives must be designed so they maintain existing wage and benefit standards and do not displace existing jobs or simply exchange one group of unemployed workers for another.
The urgent call to action is often at odds, though, with the pragmatic, even cynical, calculations of conservaDems who are worried that big deficit spending could be a potent Republican issue in their home states that trumps joblessness.
Compare the different perspectives. First, here’s what’s at stake for American workers, as described by the Jobs Now! coalition:
An Urgent Call for Action to Stem the U.S. Jobs Crisis
The U.S. unemployment rate exceeded 10% in October for the first time in a quarter century. Over 15 million Americans are able and willing to work but cannot find a job. More than one out of every three unemployed workers has been out of a job for more than six months. The situation facing African American and Latino workers is even bleaker, with unemployment at 15.6% and 12.7%, respectively.
These grim statistics don’t capture the full extent of the hardship. There are another 9 million people working part time because they cannot find full-time work. Millions of others have given up looking for a job, and so aren’t counted in the official unemployment figures. Altogether, over 17% of the labor force is underemployed–more than 26 million Americans–including one in four minority workers. Last, given individuals moving in and out of jobs, we can expect a third of the workforce, and 40% of workers of color, to be unemployed or underemployed at some point over the next year. (emphasis added.)
Despite an effective and bold recovery package we are still facing a prolonged period of high unemployment. Two years from now, absent further action, we are likely to have unemployment at 8% or more, a higher rate than that attained even at the worst point of the last two downturns.
Joblessness on this scale creates enormous social and economic problems–and denies millions of families the ability to meet even their most basic needs. .
Then take a look at the political machinations among Democrats who feel themselves to be vulnerable politically, along with some retiring members who feel they can vote their conscience on behalf of a jobs package. Here’s how The Hill reported their current thinking:
The close votes reflect the growing unease among centrist Democrats that the deficit spending that Congress has undertaken to right the economy is becoming a potent campaign issue.
“We’ve got to indicate we’re serious about the deficit,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who voted “no” and represents a Republican-leaning district with low unemployment. “We didn’t cause the deficit, but we have to address it.”
Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who is retiring from Congress, changed his vote to put Democrats over the top. That signals a potent variable in vote counting next year — retirees who no longer need to respond to traditional political pressures…
Political analysts are closely watching for more centrist retirements. Those members will have no fear of losing committee assignments and can’t be won over with promises of campaign help or other inducements…
But Democrats facing tough re-election fights found themselves trying to determine if voters are angrier about 10 percent unemployment or trillions in deficits.
“My staff is looking at it,” said a newly elected Democratic member from a conservative district as the clock ticked down. “If I can’t make a good case that a lot of money is coming back to my district, I can’t support it. I wish we had more time.”
He voted “no.”
Compare that political calculation with the fear and anxiety gripping America’s unemployed, with half of them reporting depression, panic and heavy borrowing from friends. The New York Times reported this week:
Poll Reveals Trauma of Joblessness in U.S.
More than half of the nation’s unemployed workers have borrowed money from friends or relatives since losing their jobs. An equal number have cut back on doctor visits or medical treatments because they are out of work.
Almost half have suffered from depression or anxiety. About 4 in 10 parents have noticed behavioral changes in their children that they attribute to their difficulties in finding work.
It doesn’t seem that many members of Congress fully understand yet the havoc that’s been let loose in the land because of widespread unemployment. Meanwhile, posturing over ideology continues. They all might benefit if they could listen with open hearts to the plight of those without work in their districts and states, as aptly depicted in the song, “We Can’t Make It Here,” written by James McMurty during the Bush era, even before the meltdown, and unfortunately, it still applies today.
Who is listening to them now?
*This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on December 17, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.
About the Author Art Levine is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, and a former Fellow with the Progressive Policy Insititute. He has also written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate, Salon and numerous other publications. He is the author of 2005’s PPI report, Parity-Plus: A Third Way Approach to Fix America’s Mental Health System, and is currently researching a book on mental health issues. Levine also posts commentary at Art Levine Confidential