(Photo: Grant MacDonald)
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. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) 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 America back on a path to prosperity."
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 grassroots campaign. (But the Senate will likely act as soon as this week to include an emergency extension of unemployment and COBRA health benefits.) Political activism has become even more urgent, because a combination of continuing high unemployment and the movement of people in and out of jobs could mean that as many as a third of the workforce could be unemployed or underemployed 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 in the day, 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.
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 theme 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.”
The groups and leaders featured in the press conference call 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 grassroots advocacy group, US Action, serving as 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 grassroots muscle in all 50 states to push for jobs legislation in the tough legislative struggle ahead, especially in the Senate. And that's what's been missing before on this issue: united activism around job creation which could, potentially, have more diverse grassroots 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-Illinois), who co-chairs the bipartisan Jobs Now! Congressional 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, grassroots organizing and political necessity could push through meaningful jobs legislation - and the Pelosi-backed bill is considered a very good start.
As Anna Burger declared after the vote: “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 ... But our work is far from over.”
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-Minnesota) - 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 tone of the coalition’s call to action is directly at odds, though, with the pragmatic, even cynical, calculations of conservative Democrats who are worried that big deficit spending could be a potent Republican issue that trumps joblessness in their home states.
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]
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 vulnerable politically, along with some retiring members who finally believe they can vote their consciences 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.
Joblessness has wreaked financial and emotional havoc on the lives of many of those out of work, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll of unemployed adults, causing major life changes, mental health issues and trouble maintaining even basic necessities.
The results of the poll, which surveyed 708 unemployed adults from Dec. 5 to Dec. 10 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points, help to lay bare the depth of the trauma experienced by millions across the country who are out of work as the jobless rate hovers at 10 percent and, in particular, as the ranks of the long-term unemployed soar.
"I lost my job in March, and from there on, everything went downhill," said Vicky Newton, 38, of Mount Pleasant, Mich., a single mother who had been a customer-service representative in an insurance agency.
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 in Washington. 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 a song, "We Can't Make It Here," written by James McMurty during the Bush era, even before the meltdown. Unfortunately, it still applies today: