By any objective measure, our national economy is not in recovery, but rather is still in serious trouble. The latest July figures from the U.S. Department of Labor show that unemployment remains at a very high 9.5%, while in the construction industry the jobless rate continues to hover at or near 20% nationwide and many of the unemployed have been without a job for over 6 months. The skilled construction workers who have built this great country are growing increasingly desperate, and yet, politicians of both parties and the mainstream media are ignoring their suffering.
People like Andrew Fonger. Andrew is in his mid-30s, and lives and works in the Washington, DC area as a member of Local 10 of the International Union of Elevator Constructors. He is married and the father of a 1 year old daughter. While the media likes to say that Washington, D.C. is recession proof because lobbyists and lawyers are fully employed, try telling that to Andrew. He has been unemployed since January, and like millions of other Americans, Andrew is facing excruciatingly painful decisions. He and his wife have already had to eliminate any notion of putting money aside for their daughter's college education, because what little savings they have, combined with what Andrew collects from unemployment insurance goes exclusively to make the payments on their home and to meet the $1,100 per month payment required for Andrew to retain his health benefits under COBRA. And like far too many Americans these days, Andrew is facing the prospect that "when the savings are gone, the next thing is the house."
Or take Jackie Partridge, a member of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 7 from Colorado, who has also been unemployed for over seven months. Her skills and hard work used to earn her a weekly paycheck over $800. Now she is on her second extension of unemployment benefits with two teenagers to support. She says:
I thought about maybe getting two $10 jobs somewhere, and I can't. I've got two kids that aren't over 18, and I'm the only caretaker. And I can't afford to be away from them for 20 hours a day... And even my son, he's 15, and he wants to get a job, and there's not even anything for him to try to help out.
Both Andrew and Jackie are skilled construction professionals, who have completed extensive multi-year apprenticeship programs and have years of on-the-job experience. Unfortunately, those skills are sitting idle while our infrastructure and schools crumble. They both are even looking for work outside the construction industry, despite their skills which normally make them highly desirable to many employers. It breaks my heart to hear their stories and hundreds of thousands just like them, when I know that there isn't a community in this country that doesn't have a bridge, school, or power plant that needs retooling.
We all know that during these past several months Jackie and Andrew could have been gainfully employed, growing the wealth of the U.S.A. Not only would their work add value on its own, but it would benefit the small businesses that overwhelmingly make up the construction industry, generate revenue for manufacturers, and increase tax receipts for state, local and the federal governments.
Furthermore, as they continue to remain unemployed, there is a corresponding decline in income and consumer demand. In a recession, that kind of decline can degenerate into a vicious downward spiral, as those who are still employed, seeing the threat of unemployment looming, choose to save rather than spend. As a result, demand is further reduced, more people are laid off, and the downward spiral continues.
Our nation can no longer to ignore the suffering of the unemployed who so desperately want to get back to productive work. Nor can we afford to indulge our leaders' penchant for delay and political posturing, which comes at the expense of millions of working American families who are hurting. What we need now are bold approaches to economic recovery that will produce jobs.
Our economy needs job-creating investments, because tax breaks won't cut it. Why would they, when U.S. corporations are already sitting on $1.8 trillion in cash. In fact, corporate profits today are greater than they were at the height of the most recent bubble, and yet job creation is virtually at a standstill. With statistics like these staring them in the face, the time is now for policymakers in Washington to develop initiatives that will put America's skilled construction workers back on the job.
Businesses are sitting on their mountains of cash, because they do not foresee sustained demand for their goods and services. Extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy will not solve this problem. What we need are investments that will boost demand and create long-term economic growth - investments like re-building our nation's infrastructure for the 21st century and transforming the way our nation develops and uses energy.
Tax breaks for the wealthy never built a bridge or an airport. They never increased American productivity by reducing traffic congestion, increasing broadband service, or creating a modern energy grid. The most fundamental step in boosting our economy is to get American workers back on the job. Getting people back to work affects the momentum of the economy, which ultimately creates the cycle of private-sector job creation that we need.
It's impossible to overstate the threat that this crisis of unemployment poses to the well-being of the United States. Entire communities - both rural and metropolitan - are going under. We need to immediately build on the successes of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and use scarce federal dollars in the most efficient way to boost demand and get the unemployed back to work.
You can find Andrew and Jackie's stories and others just like them, whose struggles during this recession have gone ignored on BackOnTheJob.org. Until we simultaneously tackle the jobs crisis facing the construction industry and our dilapidated infrastructure, our nation will not get back on track, nor will we be able to build the shining, hopeful, 21st century vision of America that President Obama was elected to build. And that, brothers and sisters, would be a tragedy for all the Andrews and Jackies waiting and hoping to get back on the job.
Mark H. Ayers is the President of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO - an alliance of 13 national and international unions that collectively represent over 2 million skilled craft professionals in the United States and Canada.