|ONLINE VERSION||NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2001|
|The sound of inaction in Washington, DC
these days is deafening as American workers look to their elected
officials for leadership in the aftermath of the September 11
One would think that the brutal attacks on our country would have unified our politicians to address the needs of the American people. But how soon they forget. We have seen our elected officials abandon the economic victims of these attacks – the 700,000 laid-off workers across the United States including 140,000 of our brothers and sisters in the airline industry.
The current debate is focused on jump starting the slumping economy. Competing proposals range from sensible attempts to invest in Amtrak and other transportation infrastructure and security needs and assist laid off workers with extended unemployment benefits and subsidized health care coverage to outrageous corporate giveaways disguised as proposals to stimulate business investment.
If the terrorist attacks themselves were not enough to inspire quick and decisive action by Congress and the President on behalf of working families, the economic impact of September 11 should have been a wake up call. Yet working men and women are still waiting for relief.
More workers lost their jobs in October (415,000) than in any one-month period since 1980. The October unemployment rate reached 5.4 percent, the highest in five years. In the three weeks following September 11, unemployment claims soared in all states in comparison to the three weeks before the terrorist attacks. Hawaii unemployment soared 224 percent; Nevada jumped 126 percent; New York increased by 64 percent; and even Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott’s Mississippi saw a 44 percent rise in unemployment.
Did Congress and the President answer the call? Judge for yourself.
The President’s plan provides additional weeks of federally financed unemployment benefits but then limits the expanded assistance to workers in a few states. By doing so, he is abandoning the laid-off in an estimated 30 to 40 states. His plan also fails to assure coverage to workers who do not qualify for benefits in their state and ignores the need to increase the inadequate level of current benefits. And the Bush proposal doesn’t provide any guaranteed assistance to pay for health insurance for laid-off workers who lose it and siphons resources from a federal program designed to help uninsured children.
The recently passed House Republican plan is even worse as it does not provide any guaranteed extension of unemployment benefits and not a single dime of new guaranteed funds is provided. The extended benefits for the unemployed will be provided only if a state elects to do so and will be financed through existing state unemployment accounts. This plan also does not provide any new guaranteed funding to finance the massive loss of health insurance anticipated among laid-off workers.
The Democrats have a plan that actually provides real benefits to the laid-off. Unemployment coverage is extended at least 13 weeks with guaranteed federal funding to cover the cost. Unemployment payments are also increased by 15 percent, or $25 per week, whichever is greater. This would translate on average to $135 per month in additional purchasing power for the unemployed. Lastly, the Democrats provide $7 billion for one year of extended health care coverage for laid-off workers with the federal government financing 75 percent of premiums.
With the Christmas holiday break for Congress fast approaching, now the nation is watching and waiting as politicians – locked in partisan fighting – try to score political points with the voters while workers and their families suffer from inaction. The question now is can Congress actually go home for the holidays and leave workers to fend for themselves?
Let us not be fooled by those who preach patience, claiming that meaningful action will take time. The fact is that politicians know how to act quickly when they want to.
Just days after the September 11 attacks on our country that grounded the entire airline industry, Congress and President Bush enacted emergency legislation that handed the nation’s major airlines $15 billion in assistance. And by the way, not a nickel was set aside in the bill to assist laid-off airline workers. Billions have been set aside to shield United and American Airlines from any liability from the terrorist crashes that exceeds their insurance coverage. Our government is also poised to bail out insurers by imposing on the taxpayer most of the soaring premium increases – to the tune of $15-$20 billion – for insuring against acts of terrorism.
Perhaps worst of all, the so-called "stimulus" bill jammed through the House by Republican leaders gave corporations $165 billion in tax breaks and almost nothing for laid-off workers. Remember, this is the same bill that fails to provide any guaranteed benefits for the unemployed. But not everyone does so poorly in this bill. IBM bagged $1.4 billion in tax breaks, which is about 75 percent of the amount needed to help the first 100,000 laid-off airline workers announced just weeks after September 11.
A majority in the Senate tried to act responsibly but a Republican filibuster stymied 50 Democrats, five Republicans and one independent who voted in favor of relief legislation for the unemployed. Unfortunately, a political ploy carried out by a minority bloc of Senators killed the bill and abandoned workers at this critical moment in time for American workers.
The message from politicians has never been clearer. Let us understand one thing – elected officials have proven capable of moving at lightening speed to finance the war against terrorism and to assist America’s corporations with bail-outs and tax giveaways. Laid-off workers, meanwhile, have been abandoned by the elected leaders they voted into office. One of those leaders, Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, even had the gall to say that emergency passage of a relief bill for laid-off workers was not in the "American spirit."
Congress and the President have a real chance to help working men and women in the weeks and months ahead. They must rise to the challenge by enacting real relief legislation for laid-off workers including extended unemployment and health care benefits. They must also support serious job creation proposals such as investments in rail and other transportation needs. Working families need to know that their elected officials truly comprehend the suffering faced by a growing number of American workers.
In the end, let us all remember in 2002 the cold-hearted politicians who in 2001 willingly chose to walk away from the thousands of working families who continue to suffer from the economic fallout of September 11.