Sunday, August 9, 2009

Got jobs?

To my passion for supporting our soldiers and our farmers, I have just added another … supporting and bringing attention to the plight of the unemployed folks.
Why? Because it affects all of us. Because I have been unemployed. Because if we want to solve our other problems, we need to get people back to work first. Because if our elected officials want to stay elected, they all – no matter what their party – need to pay way more attention to this issue than they have been. They have a job. They need to focus on those who do not.
A couple of incidents illustrate why I care and why everybody should.
The first incident happened a few weeks ago (or months, depending when you are reading this).
Workers and their families and supporters and townspeople gathered a few weeks ago to pray. The workers are from the ArcelorMittal steel plant in Hennepin, Ill. ArcelorMittal announced late in 2008 they were closing the Hennepin plant. Layoffs started in February with almost 300 workers out of jobs.
A group held a rally and prayer vigil at the gates of the shuttered steel plant in late July to pray to God for help. The prayer vigil drew from all denominations and churches drew together to say a prayer for the unemployed workers. Prayers came from out of state and from as far away as California.
What kind of shape are we in where hardworking Americans who only want to earn a wage and support their families and live the American dream, are driven to call on God to save their jobs? No doubt these are religious people but I almost cried when I read the story of the prayer vigil.
While it might have been a “first resort” sort of thing, to pray publicly and at the gates of a steel mill, outside of your house of worship, for jobs, seems to me at least like a last resort kind of thing. I’m not saying at all that these are not religious folks, indeed, I believe it’s quite the opposite. It’s hard to explain. When you have to publicly pray to God to keep your job, it seems like all other public venues – specifically your elected officials – have failed you.
The second incident happened some number of years ago, in 2001, May 18, to be exact.
I remember that day for a number of reasons. I was the night editor at Sauk Valley Newspapers.
Someone called us the day before or that day, the time is not clear now, and told us that the day shift men had just been told that their shift Friday would be the last they would work, they were done. Finished. Out of work. The gates would be locked behind them and they would need to take whatever they had in their lockers with them.
The mill was the backbone of Sterling and Rock Falls and a strong support of other towns too. Generations of families worked there, made good livings at the mill that turned out steel wire and rod and kept two towns and many, many, many related businesses doing very well for many, many, many years.
The saddest part was that we heard so many word-of-mouth stories, of people who had lost their health care who were too young for Medicare and who could not even afford their medicines under Medicaid who were cutting pills up into halves and quarters just to stretch their medicines.
Small businesses began to close after a few years or cut back their hours. The hurt was felt all over the region.
Some people said – loudly and publicly – that they had no pity for the mill workers. They’d worked at the mill in low-skill, very high-pay jobs and lived on the power of those salaries for a long time. So what? Some felt they deserved it, that the unions with their demands for extremely luxurious benefits and wage packages, had driven the steel industries right out of the country to places where steel could be made cheaper, where workers worked for much lower wages.
It was a moot point. The point was that the mill’s closing, although they had been laying off workers and closing various sections of the mill for years, wounded a lot of sectors, left hurt on the region that has, to this day, only started to heal.
The positive thing is that it brought the good people front and center. Volunteers rushed to try to get some health care for those left without it, to stock food pantries, to provide summertime meals for children who might not have anything.
Any service that local agencies could offer was offered. It really did bring out the angels in the community. That area’s proudest moment – ironically – came at one of it’s darkest moments. But that’s sometimes the way it happens.
I sent the photographer to take the picture as the mill closed for the final time and he did. He photographed the men walking out of the gates for the last time. They were very, very quiet, he said.
He photographed the guard as he chained and padlocked the gates shut behind the last worker of the once-proud and thriving plant that had built and nurtured two towns and countless families, a universe of American dreams.
We reported for months after that on the efforts of those towns to help those who had been left with no health insurance and who had lost their pensions, those who were out of work and could not find work as the economy slid in the dark days following America’s darkest day almost four months to the day later.
For years after, the mill remained standing. It was always, to me, a sort of wishful thinking, that if they left it standing, another steel company would roll in, buy it, start it back up and things would magically go back to the way they were. It never happened, of course. Another company did buy part of it but the mill never did come back. After part of it burned, the town – reluctantly it seemed – agreed to start demolishing it. It was always my impression, again only my impression, that when the demolition started in earnest so did the demolition of hope of the mill and its jobs and its prosperity returning.
I’m sure everyone has heard or personally knows about the effect an industry closing can have on a small town or a large one, the ripple effect that it causes, even into businesses where you think it could never reach. It affects everyone sooner or later and in ways that they may never have imagined. It leaves hurt on towns and regions that takes decades to heal if it does at all.
I think politicians generally (although there are a handful from both parties who are working to bring jobs and to restore jobs to their districts and states) have abandoned the unemployment issue because it’s something they cannot solve with an incredible flourish. They know they cannot put people back to work overnight. I know that. We all do. But I would like to see as much of an effort being made, as many words and speeches and remarks being made publicly, on behalf of the unemployed, about the jobless situation and it’s continuing effect, as we’ve heard on cap and trade and health care.
Cap and trade and health care are things that might happen, that could happen.
Unemployment is happening and it’s like a pebble in a pond. It’s ripples are widening, from people cutting back on their food purchases (which is hurting farmers) to fewer retail purchases of everything. It’s not hard to follow the ripples either and trace the effect that unemployment everywhere is having on businesses.
I am all in favor of “green jobs.” But I also think those who are promising all these “green jobs” need to start offering more specifics. In return for government funding or government policy change, they need to tell people how many, where, what type, what skill level and what kind of training will be needed for the “green jobs” they are offering.
I really think there need to be some concrete and in writing guarantees of jobs made before any policies are changed, before any money is handed over. Words are easy to say, promises are easy to make and roll smoothly off the tongue. Written guarantees are a bit harder to renege on.
We need more than jobs for college grads and 20-somethings and 30-somethings. We need jobs for the whole age range of those folks praying over in Hennepin for a miracle. We need jobs for those laid off from Cat in Peoria, from Buzzi in Oglesby, from factories big and small in towns big and small in every region, every state in this country. We don’t need high-falutin’ techno gigs that require lengthy education and thus lots of cash to acquire.
We need blue-collar, low-skill and mid-level-skill jobs. We need jobs that don’t require years with a union or an uncle who knows somebody at the hall. We need jobs that just folks can occupy and earn a wage to support their family and thus support other families and other workers. And we need those jobs now.
We don’t need promises that these jobs will crop up someday or months from now. We need politicians of both parties to get working on it if they want to keep their jobs. Because, as we’ve all learned and painfully – nobody’s job is guaranteed. The gates can be chained and padlocked behind anybody.

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