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As Liberal Groups Prepare Mass Rally, 99ers Push to Organize

One-nation.jpg
One-nation.jpg

Howard Dean speaks in support of the One Nation Working Together Rally.

In response to last month’s Glenn Beck-hosted “Restoring Honor” summit, hundreds of thousands plan to descend on Washington for a rally by the Lincoln Memorial next weekend. On Saturday, liberal groups are hosting the “One Nation Working Together” event, making a case for activism for progressive legislation to a middle class that increasingly seems to be withdrawing support from Democratic candidates.

[Economy1] The groups attending include civil rights, gay rights, economic justice, peace and labor activists. The AFL-CIO, National Council of La Raza and dozens of others are busing in participants, and more than 200,000 are set to attend.

“Despite having such evidence of what we can accomplish together, we have seen voter participation rates plummet — from Shelby County, Tennessee to Alameda County, California,” said Ben Jealous, the head of the NAACP. “Simultaneously, far-right extremists have found their way back into the nation’s political discourse and helped re-energize a retrograde agenda that includes attacks on every pillar of our civil rights protections from the Voting Rights Act to the Civil Rights Act to the 14th Amendment itself. Now is the time to get everyone off the sidelines and back on to the battlefield.”

And one of the groups storming that battlefield will be a new, targeted umbrella organization for the 99ers, the American 99ers Union. Just a few weeks old, the union represent 17 groups that in turn represent workers who have exhausted the maximum weeks of unemployment benefits. Its stated goal is supporting fading legislation to help the long-term unemployed, given the high unemployment rate and congressional intransigence and to raise awareness.

Nationally, long-term unemployment remains one of the most prevalent and pressing results of the recession. There are about 6.6 million workers who have been out of a job for more than six months and approximately one million who have exhausted their jobless benefits. Long-term joblessness results in everything from worse health outcomes to increased use of safety-net programs such as disability insurance — and studies show the longer a worker is unemployed, the harder it is for her to find a job.

Gregg Rosen, host of the BlogTalk radio show Unemployment Roundtable, and Michael White of the Unemployed Workers Action Group started the umbrella group. It represents about 40,000 workers, most of whom connect via the Internet. “99ers and 99er groups are banding together,” explains LaDona King, one of the most prominent 99er activists on the Web and a member of the new union. “And they are coming in one by one for strength and for consistency. The idea is that we have a consistent message, not a bunch of stories of woe and terror. And the message is that Americans need legislation to stay afloat. Workers are really hurting.”

The union is intently focused on pressuring legislators to move forward on two bills to give additional weeks of benefits to jobless workers. One bill, by Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), grants 20 more weeks of benefits to workers in states where the unemployment rate is above 10 percent.

“Right now, there are more long-term jobless Americans than we’ve ever had on record, and we can’t just let them all fall off a cliff,” McDermott said, introducing the legislation. “I don’t believe how we can cut and run from helping unemployed workers when there are five of them competing for every available job. You only have to hear from a few unemployed workers to know how hard they are looking for work and to feel their sheer sense of desperation. Are we really prepared to just stand by and watch them sink into abject poverty?”

The second bill — fuller legislation that is therefore the subject of more 99er activism — is Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D-Mich.) Americans Want to Work Act. That legislation changes the maximum number of weeks to 119 in states with unemployment rates above 7.5 percent, meaning 34 states and the District of Columbia would currently qualify. It also extends a tax credit to companies that hire workers who have been unemployed for more than two months.

The union held its first major push for the bills last week, having members fax in a letter to Congressional offices, urging action on the bill. Sites informed jobless workers how to use free websites to send two faxes a day, some Congressional offices reported hundreds coming in. Additionally, the 99ers union is working to bring workers to the One Nation Working Together rally.

Thus far, there are no clear signs of movement on either piece of legislation, though Stabenow’s office has indicated it will try to get the Senate Finance Committee to move forward on her bill. (It needs committee approval before a floor debate.) Congressional aides say it is highly unlikely for a vote on either bill before the November election — after which, Congress will need to take up an extension of current benefits, meaning Tier V legislation might fall by the wayside.

But the activists remain galvanized by their new coordination. “We’re fired up and we’re not giving up,” King says. Thousands of jobless workers are using the new 99er group to find free or reduced rides to the rally, a chance to press again for the cause, she says.

“If Obama said the word ’99er’ once, if he recognized this problem, I would put all my energy into campaigning for a Democratic win this November,” she notes.

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