CHICAGO - "It's disappointing. America is my home. What's gone wrong?" asked Leroy Smith, a laid off Chicago bus driver. "I'm through being patient. We need the government to put us back to work now."
"You're not alone in this fight. So many people are laid off but sometimes you think you're the only one," said Darrell Jefferson, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241. Over 1,100 transit workers were laid off in February that has crippled transit service and thrown families into crisis.
Smith and Jefferson were testifying to a Chicago Workers Rights Board hearing April 28 about the jobless and budget crisis gripping the city, state and nation.
"The ATU is doing a great job of supporting others in their struggle. The transit crisis is not just here. It's a national problem. ATU Local 241 will be in this fight," he said.
The Workers Rights Board heard a broad array of moving testimony from workers, veterans, immigrants and academics that illustrated in very stark and personal terms the horrible impact of the economic crisis.
Mel Rothenberg of the Chicago Economic Planning Group said 30 million working aged people are unemployed or underemployed.
Rothenberg said only the federal government can create jobs on a scale that is needed. He called for jobs creation through a financial transaction tax (FTT) on Wall Street speculators. A FTT of .25% on stocks and .10% on currency and debt trading could have raise $750 and $1.2 trillion during each of the past five years.
Eugene Cherry is an Iraq war vet. He knows first hand the tribulations of hundreds of thousands of veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars into an economic crisis at home.
"Companies aren't as willing to hire you. Many vets came back, but couldn't get their old jobs back," said Cherry, who like many vets has suffered from PTSD. "We can't find jobs - there simply are none."
This has compounded the crisis among vets, who are suffering extremely high rates of suicide. Cherry said the Veterans Administration is inadequate in dealing with veterans who come back with many issues. The Obama Administration domestic spending freeze makes it impossible to help people in need.
The economic crisis is having a particularly sharp impact on disabled Americans, whose unemployment hovers at 80%. Donna Shaw, a member of Disabled Americans Want Work Now! described how she was laid off from her bank job a year ago and has been unemployed since. She said her employer refused to provide her with the things she needed to do her job.
"The bank has deep pockets, but never provided a sign language interpreter for any of the mandatory weekly meetings and trainings," said Shaw. "This was a clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act."
Shaw said people with disabilities must struggle with discrimination in hiring and on the job. The result is disabled Americans experience high levels of poverty.
The jobless crisis is also allowing employers to get away with union busting and threatening immigrant workers with deportation. Mary Constantino worked as a bagger at Pete's Fresh Market for two years. She got fed up with harassment and sexual discrimination on the job and along with her fellow workers turned to UFCW to organize her workplace.
"I was fired for organizing. This is so unjust. All we wanted was better working conditions and better wages to provide for our families," she said. "They threaten to call ICE. Many workers are afraid to denounce what happened," she said.
But Constantino like all the others who testified vows to fight for jobs at a living wage and with a voice at the workplace. They are not afraid or intimidated.
"I'm not going to resign myself to a life of indentured servitude, which is what Wall Street is asking us to do," declared Stephanie DeBose, a carpenter and union member who has been unemployed for three years. "We have to get active and make our voices heard."
Photo: John Bachtell Stephanie DuBose, carpenter and member of International Carpenters Union testifies at Chicago Workers Rights Board hearing, April 28. DuBose has been unemployed for 3 years.