Portland workers pan State of the Union

For a few minutes on the morning of Jan. 20, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt pretended to be Andrew Card, White House chief of staff for President George W. Bush. The president was due to give his annual State of the Union speech that evening, and for the benefit of the media, Nesbitt as Card had assembled a focus group of mostly unemployed Portland area workers to find out what they wanted to hear.

Bush’s speech ended up focusing mostly on terrorism and war, but the top concern at the Portland roundtable was trade and the economy. All six workers spoke of a pervasive economic insecurity, despite cheery reports in the media about economic recovery.

“If you have a job, you’re there at the company’s pleasure,” said Mitch Freifeld, a 53-year-old systems analyst who was laid off by Xerox over two years ago. “There’s no social contract between employers and their employees any more.”

Freifeld said the idea that you’re unemployed through some fault of your own is a fallacy; he said he doesn’t see his job coming back, because the entire industry is moving to India. “There’s going to be a wave of people coming out of universities in this country who are unable to find viable careers in high tech,” Freifeld said. “I would say to the chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard or Boeing, ‘Why is your job still here? I’m sure somebody in India would do your job for cheap too.’ ”

“We’re going through the gutting of America,” said Sandra Michaels, a 15-year management consultant for Boeing and Intel who was laid off in July 2001. Unable to find another job in her field, Michaels said now works in a downtown clothing store.

“I’m not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of people in Oregon alone that are suffering economically.”

As Nesbitt predicted, Bush said in his address that the economy is strong and growing stronger.

“In the last three years,” Bush said, “adversity has revealed the fundamental strengths of the American economy. We have come through recession, and terrorist attack, and corporate scandals, and the uncertainties of war .... The pace of economic growth in the third quarter of 2003 was the fastest in nearly 20 years; new home construction, the highest in almost 20 years; home ownership rates, the highest ever. Manufacturing activity is increasing. Inflation is low. Interest rates are low. Exports are growing. Productivity is high, and jobs are on the rise.”

Anticipating these claims, Nesbitt asked the workers what they thought about the state of the economy.

“The unemployment numbers are supposedly going down,” said Oregon Health and Sciences University nurse Dana Welty. “It doesn’t feel that way. I’m concerned that so many companies are reducing their workforce and outsourcing their work, where are all these retrained people going to find work?”

Boeing machinist Scott Lucy, 50, mockingly agreed that jobs are on the rise. At Boeing, Lucy said, 15 laid-off workers had been recalled in recent weeks ... from among the 700 workers laid-off since the downturn began.

Extending long-term unemployment benefits and revoking harmful trade agreements might help, Lucy said. But Lucy, a registered Republican, said he doesn’t expect either of those things from the Bush Administration. “What we need is a partnership with labor to promote manufacturing,” Lucy said. “Unions helped build this country, and that deserves some respect.”

Nationally, AFL-CIO union leaders panned Bush’s State of the Union address.

“All we have to show for three years of multi-trillion-dollar tax cuts for the rich, free-wheeling trade policy and race-to-the-bottom corporate globe-trotting is the loss of 2.9 million private sector jobs. More of the same will make matters worse for the nation and for working families,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney declared.

“More of the same,” however, is what Bush proposed. He asked the Republican-controlled Congress to make his trillions of dollars in tax cuts — some of which are due to expire by 2011 — permanent.

Bush’s top domestic duty should be “to solve the jobs crisis,” Sweeney said. “He can do so only with a program consciously designed to create and sustain good middle-class jobs.” Bush instead proposed adding money to retrain jobless adult workers — funds he cut this year.

Other union leaders panned Bush on specific points.

American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman criticized underfunding of federal school aid and blamed the tax cuts for the rich for that. “One way to start fulfilling the promises made to public schools is to stop providing massive tax breaks for individuals and corporations that don’t need them, and redirect resources to where they are needed,” she said. “The previous tax cuts have neither created jobs nor helped our schools.”

Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, whose union has a high proportion of registered Republicans, was upset Bush had no requests for domestic front-line battlers in the war on terror.

“It appears Bush has forgotten 9/11,” said Schaitberger. His union lost 343 New York City firefighters who entered the doomed World Trade Center that day in a rescue attempt after al-Qaeda’s terrorists attacked it with two commandeered jets.

“Bush has refused or opposed using federal funds for the highly successful Assistance to Fire Fighters federal grant program” to help train them to combat terror, Schaitberger added.

“Two-thirds of the nation’s fire departments were under-staffed before 9/11, and the problem is worse now as federal cuts, filtering down to states and cities, force firefighter layoffs even as terror alerts increase.

“Yet the Administration has taken a laissez-faire approach to the nation’s safety and security, as evidenced in Bush’s speech,” Schaitberger said.

(PAI contributed to this report)

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