Advocates for the Unemployed Seek to Keep the Heat on Republicans

WASHINGTON --- It was another week of unrelenting sun and intense humidity in Washington, D.C. Commuters baked, pedestrians dragged along hot sidewalks, and dry cleaners counted the receipts and made plans for a January vacation in Hawaii.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic politicians and activists aimed to address the lot of American workers in the sputtering economy. Their scope was national but local struggles rose to become part of the discussion.
One topic was wages, as many sought to build on President Obama’s executive order in February raising the minimum wage for certain federal contract workers. Some advocates pushed for an increase in the hourly minimum wage, while others pressed for a living wage, defined as that amount necessary to pay for basic needs.
A spokesperson for Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat representing Alameda County, Calif., said she supports implementing a living wage in Oakland, the largest city in her district. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology puts the living wage there at $11.51 an hour, while the California state minimum wage is now $9.00. Meanwhile, the Lift Up Oakland coalition is promoting a local ballot proposal that would increase the minimum wage to $12.25 per hour next March.
Lee was the leader of last week’s Witness Wednesdays get together, designed to urge Speaker of the U.S. House John Boehner to call for a vote on a proposal that would extend federal unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed, those out of work for more than six months. The benefits expired last December. The U.S. Senate passed a measure that would extend the benefits and sent it to the House but Boehner won’t allow it to be heard.
Each of the six Witness Wednesdays events held in June and July gathers near the steps of the U.S. Capitol a slew of representatives and advocates to read testimonials of a few of the 3.3 million long-term unemployed workers struggling to get by without a benefit check.  
“For the last six months Republicans have refused to pass this proposal,” said Lee. “This especially impacts communities of color. The unemployment rate for African Americans is twice that of whites, and for Latinos it is one-and-a-half times that of whites.”
Many of the testimonials were from workers laid off or let go by companies impacted by a downturn in the economy.
Kevin Bradshaw told a different story. Bradshaw, president of the Memphis local of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, said that Kellogg’s locked out more than 220 union members at its Memphis cereal plant last October.
Bradshaw contends the lock out is illegal, and that Kellogg’s is seeking to bring in new workers at a lower wage and fewer benefits. “They are picking on Memphis because of the poor economy. Companies there are typically paying about $9, $10 an hour. They seek to pay us that.”
Kellogg’s says on its website covering the lock out that it has proposed a new contract to the local that will make the Memphis operation more competitive, and that the union “will continue to enjoy their good wages and benefits.”
Some of the Witness Wednesdays’ arguments were undercut by the drop in the unemployment rate in June to 6.1 percent, a rate last seen in 2008, according to a July 3 release from the Labor Department.
Indeed, the numbers showed improvements for adult black women and the long-term unemployed. But a deeper look suggested that employment rates hadn’t improved for adult men, whites, and Hispanics, said Katherine McFate, president and CEO of the Center for Effective Government, one of the not-for-profit groups behind the Witness Wednesdays.
“We still have an estimated 9.5 million unemployed Americans five years into this recovery,” said McFate. There are about 6 million workers who have stopped looking for jobs, and are missed in labor’s calculations, she notes.
Count those missing workers and the unemployment rate would be north of 9.6 percent, says McFate. “In short, the long-term unemployment crisis is far from over.”    

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