America’s Workers Can’t Spend Praise

Guest Commentary

Volume CI, No. 12December, 2001

John J. Sweeney

The debate on the most effective way to provide relief for victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy and revive the nation’s economy will undoubtedly continue for months, if not years. This commentary, by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, challenged the initial response of the Bush administration. It appeared in the Washington Post on Oct. 24.

For the past month, everybody in America has been a worker wannabe. Hard hats, sleeveless T-shirts and ball caps emblazoned with “FDNY” and “NYPD” are hot sellers with adults. Construction worker, police officer, firefighter and pilot gear are our children’s Halloween costumes of choice. Respect for government workers is up and postal workers are finally getting some overdue appreciation for their everyday heroism.

And why not? Even in the face of unspeakable sadness and new anxieties, it makes us feel good about our country and ourselves to pay homage to our heroes and the sturdy working family values they live and died for. And believe me, it makes those workers feel good to get some recognition for the contributions they make, 24-7-365.

The painful irony is that the homage our nation pays is just lip service. While we’ve been singing the praises of workers, Congress is about the business of severing their lifelines.

Working men and women are the front-line victims of the terrorist attacks. Many of them lost their lives at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, in the planes that crashed and now in postal facilities. More than 500,000 are losing their jobs in the aftermath, nearly 150,000 in the aviation industry and 120,000 in the hospitality and tourism industries alone. Aftershocks are thrusting ferociously through steel, auto and other manufacturing plants, the bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel a cruel indicator. On the home front, Congress first responded to the attacks by rushing a $15 billion airline company bailout. But despite a heavy push for $2.5 billion in extended unemployment benefits, job training and health care for the aviation workers whose livelihoods were obliterated, the bailout bill provided exactly nothing for them.

The bailout legislation was a bipartisan effort; so too the neglect of aviation industry workers must be a bipartisan responsibility. The Senate had a second chance to honor America’s working families with relief legislation. Instead, a bloc of Republican senators, backed by intensive White House lobbying, went to the extreme of filibustering to death a relief bill that would have provided help for the tens of thousands of already- jobless aviation workers and their families.

Now President Bush is offering to pick up the tab for future terrorism-related insurance company losses and proposing a $75 billion stimulus plan to jump-start our economy. And again, working families have been put on notice that they will be served last and least at the table of economic recovery. The Bush stimulus plan provides almost no new money for unemployed workers, includes sharply limited emergency jobless benefits for workers in only a limited number of states and dips into two wholly inadequate existing programs – one of which is supposed to serve poor children – to give unemployed adults health coverage.

By historical standards, it’s a stingy plan. It departs from proven recession-fighting packages that were based on the understanding that expanding unemployment benefits – replacing lost incomes and health care – is the fastest way to get money into the economy.

Increasing unemployment benefits is an economic stabilizer because the benefits go right to the geographic areas of concentration. And expanded benefits are a crucial psychological stabilizer in uncertain times.

That’s why emergency unemployment compensation was a staple of the anti-recessionary packages signed by former president George H. W. Bush in the early 1990s.

But the current White House proposal – and the proposal from House Republicans shamelessly more so – tilts heavily in favor of corporate tax cuts and continues the agenda of top-heavy tax cuts for the wealthy. These tax cuts will have little or no stimulative effect: As Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has pointed out, only 18 percent of this year’s tax rebates translated into actual spending.

What our economy demands instead is a balanced plan that puts money into the pockets of large numbers of people who will spend it fast and supports workers who have been hurt the worst.

That means expanded unemployment benefits that are extended to more jobless workers (60 percent of unemployed workers don’t get benefits under the current system), help with continuing their health coverage and full funding for job retraining.

We need aid to struggling state and local governments (if it’s good for airlines and the insurance industry, surely it’s good for the fire and police protection, health care and other services provided by local governments). And we need solid investments to boost the nation’s public health system, build new schools, repair roads and bridges and expand mass transit – solid investments that meet pressing needs and create jobs.

For America’s working-class heroes, praise alone won’t pay the rent. And neither will it revive our nation’s economy.