Congressman Sander Levin acknowledged that the agenda for his Jan. 14 visit to the IBEW Local 58 hall in Detroit was a blatant attempt to shame President Bush and Republicans in Congress into extending unemployment benefits.
"When we attempted to have benefits extended in December, Republicans refused to do it," Levin said. "Two of the reasons they used is that the economy is getting better, and that if unemployed workers got the extension, they would be less likely to look for work. I'd like them to visit this hall, and talk to these unemployed workers, and see who wants to work. It's obvious that President Bush and the Republicans in Congress have no idea what it's like to have to survive on unemployment benefits, and I don't think they care."
Congress, which has a majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate, adjourned in December without providing an extension of the federal Temporary Extended Unemployment Compensation (TEUC) program, which ended Dec. 21.
The extended unemployment insurance program was enacted in March 2002. TEUC provides an additional 13 weeks of federal benefits once a person exhausts his or her 26 weeks of state Unemployment Insurance benefits. Additionally, because of Michigan's high unemployment rate, under the TEUC program unemployed workers who exhaust their 13 weeks of federal benefits qualify for a second round of 13 weeks of benefits.
Furthermore, because the Michigan state legislature adopted an "alternative" state trigger (6.5% or higher unemployment rate), unemployed workers are qualified for a third set of 13 weeks that is paid 50-50 by the federal and state trust funds. But this state law expired at the end of last year.
All state and federal benefits for some 90,000 workers have expired in Michigan, and the construction industry has been hit especially hard. As we mentioned in our last issue, unemployment in some local unions in Michigan ranges from 20 to 33 percent. That was one of the reasons Levin visited IBEW Local 58. He handed out a petition for members to sign and send to the president and members of Congress, asking them to restore another round of jobless benefits.
Local 58 members came to their union hall on Jan. 14 to collect supplemental unemployment pay. But Levin collected comments, names and contact information from about 20 unemployed electricians and pledged to use their comments during a media campaign to nudge Republicans into extending benefits.
Their comments were distressing. "My income has stopped, I have no more unemployment benefits with the exception of SUB pay," said one electrician.
Said another, who refinanced his home so that he would have interest-only payments in an effort to keep his property, "I borrowed gas money from my mom to get here," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
Added another, "I don't understand why we're sending billions over to Iraq, when we've got so many people suffering here."
Several workers pointed out that unemployment compensation only covers a quarter of their income, and one electrician found it ironic that once they can no longer collect jobless benefits, they are statistically no longer considered unemployed by the federal government. "That makes the numbers look better during an election year," he said.
Jim Deluca, IBEW 58's Political Action Committee co-chairman, said it would be bad enough if the Great Lakes area was the only place in the nation without work - "but there just aren't any jobs to travel to anywhere in the country," he said.
Levin said his campaign is directed at changing the hearts and minds of Republican members of Congress. "Don't waste your time contacting the Democrats," he said. "They're already with the program. I can't imagine why people would want to vote for President Bush and Republicans in Congress when they treat working people this way."