WASHINGTON (PAI) - AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and other panelists convened by the labor federation offered ideas on July 11 on how to get the U.S. out of its persistent jobs crisis, but the two politicians on the panel - both Democrats - admitted that aid from Washington is unlikely as long as the GOP is controlled by tea party radicals and "holds the president and Congress hostage."
Instead, several panelists warned, the cuts in federal spending, combined with layoffs of state and local government workers, could only make a bad situation worse.
In addition to Trumka, panelists included Center for American Progress economist Heather Boushey, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and two jobless workers. They met just three days after the latest Labor Department jobs report threw more cold water on an already-tepid economic recovery that has helped few workers.
The report showed unemployment rose 0.1 percent, to 9.2 percent, that U.S. firms claimed they created only 57,000 jobs in May - a gain offset by 39,000 laid off government workers - and that long-term joblessness is staying near record highs.
The two jobless Ohioans, 60-year-old Robert Stein and former heating-ventilation-air conditioner worker Shonda Steed, have been jobless for more than a year.
"If you've been unemployed for more than a year, nobody wants you," Stein, who spent 20 years in sales, said. Online job applications let firms reject workers "without a human even seeing the application," one of the two added.
Trumka said the labor movement is so fed up with inaction in Washington that it's trying to jump-start job creation, training 40,000 new apprentices and retraining 100,000 other construction workers in techniques to make buildings nationwide "green."
It also will use union-controlled pension funds to leverage $10 billion in loans to pay for such retrofitting projects, thus putting building trades workers back at work when joblessness in that sector is 15.6 percent. "But we can't do this alone, without the federal government leading," he said, as governments account for a huge share of the market.
"We have a $2.2 trillion deficit" in spending to rebuild existing infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, railroads and airports, Trumka said. "And there's another $2 trillion needed for new infrastructure," such as creating a "smart" electrical grid and extending broadband nationwide, he added. "But what's the GOP response? Cut 30 percent."
Panelists said that job creation, by returning income to the now 14 million unemployed, is the best way to fix that fiscal ill, too.
"The unemployment in front of us is something policymakers can do something about," Boushey said. "And what we do for workers is also good for the economy as a whole. Focusing on the deficit will only push things further in the wrong direction."
Though the GOP is the main culprit, Democrats missed an opportunity when they still controlled Congress, Levin and Franken said.
"We passed Mass Build America bonds, with $100 billion for infrastructure, and designed to bring in matching private investment, Levin said of the prior Democratic-run Congress two years ago. But their response now that the GOP controls the House: "They refused to renew it." Asked if the House could pass it again, he said, "No."
"We have 25-40 percent unemployment in construction in southeastern Michigan, and we haven't seen such levels since the Great Depression," Levin added.
Increasing income inequality factors into the equation, too. Levin and Trumka produced figures showing huge shares of U.S. income over the last 20-30 years going to the top 0.1 percent of wage earners. Also a factor: the attack on collective bargaining, carried out by governors and legislatures nationwide this year, Levin said.
GOP economics are "based on two mutually contradictory theories," Franken said, mimicking both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush: "Every time you cut taxes, you raise revenue and every time you cut taxes, you decrease revenue...We needed one more thing and Dick Cheney provided it." Sinking his voice to Cheney's rasp, Franken quoted Bush's V.P.: "Deficits don't matter."
But the outlook for any positive action in Congress to help the jobless is dim, both warned. Franken said the GOP "is holding the president and Congress hostage" and it, in turn, is controlled by tea party radicals.
"In a game of chicken, the irresponsible and irrational player has an advantage over the responsible and rational player. There are so many wrong-headed things going on up there right now it's depressing," he said.
Trumka again said politicians, of whatever party, who ignore the jobless, would suffer at the polls next year. "Politicians who stand to the side and wish us good luck" are "acquaintances" who will get a similar response from labor next year, Trumka said.
Photo: Job seekers stand in line at a job fair in Southfield, Mich., June 15. Michigan's unemployment rate rose to 10.3 percent in May, pushed higher by the loss of 8,000 government jobs and 3,000 in education and health services. Paul Sancya/AP