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There's No Joy Riding on This Bus Journey

Jobless workers from all 50 states will share their tales of economic deprivation during a union-led tour of eight political swing states.

March 24, 2004|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — The stories soon begin to blur:

A machinist laid off when his plant moved the production line to China. A software engineer let go when her company hired programmers in India. A construction-site electrician out of work for three years. A garment worker with nowhere left to turn.

Starting with a rally here this evening, 51 workers from all walks of life -- one from each state and the District of Columbia -- will share their frustrating, frightening and often infuriating experiences of economic dislocation with voters in eight political swing states.

The eight-day "Show Us the Jobs" bus tour, organized by the AFL-CIO, will stop at a food pantry in Minneapolis and a shuttered manufacturing plant in Milwaukee. Participants will flip pancakes with workers who expect to get pink slips from a closing Electrolux plant in Greenville, Mich. They will tour homes sold in foreclosure in Youngstown, Ohio, and commiserate with college graduates unable to find work in Morgantown, W.Va.

At every stop they will press their central theme: The recession might be over, but the pain is not.

"I want people to feel depressed. I want them to know there are so many people out there just like me," said Laura Tropea, 26.

Tropea said she graduated from the Brooklyn College of Law last summer and passed the bar exam in New York. But although she's sending out 20 resumes a week, she has not been able to find work as a lawyer. So she's slicing deli meat part time for $7 an hour -- grateful, she said, to have a job selling food so at least she can count on a few free meals a week.

The tour is targeting states that will be critical in the 2004 presidential election. And every event is designed to spotlight an issue that the AFL-CIO contends President Bush has mishandled, from overtime rules to international trade pacts. The labor organization said the trip was not coordinated with the campaign of Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Seven of the states on the itinerary were decided by fewer than 4 percentage points in the 2000 election. Democrat Al Gore narrowly won Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, while Bush captured Missouri and Ohio. The final state, West Virginia, went to Bush by 6 percentage points, but analysts expect it to be up for grabs this year.

Campaigning in the swing states and other political battlegrounds, Bush has talked with confidence about strong economic signs: home-ownership rates at an all-time high, mortgage rates at a near-historic low. In his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush cited the national unemployment rate of 5.6% as one of many positive indicators, noting that job creation edged up in February for the sixth consecutive month.

"No amount of partisan political rhetoric can change the fact that this economy is growing stronger every day," said Ed Frank, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor.

To spread that message, Bush sent three Cabinet members on a "Jobs and Growth" bus tour last month to Washington and Oregon, two states struggling with high unemployment. Encouraging laid-off workers to keep faith, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao promised that the tough times were on the way out.

"America's workers and entrepreneurs will meet every challenge," Bush declared in his radio address.

The workers on the AFL-CIO bus tour hope their painfully personal testimony will undercut the administration's optimism.

"They're tapping into a sense of uncertainty that's pervasive out here," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

Kalena Miyashiro, for instance, describes losing her job as a hotel phone operator in Hawaii for several months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She's back working full time now, but says many of her co-workers have had their hours slashed; she fears the cuts could hit her at any time.

"There's no more security," said Miyashiro, 36. "I'm not asking to be a millionaire by any means, but you should be able to trust the company you work for and feel secure about looking toward the future."

When Natasha Humphries, 30, takes the microphone, she will explain how her Silicon Valley employer sent her to India to train workers she was told had been hired to do entry-level computer programming. When she returned, she found out the foreign workers were replacing her. On two days' notice, she was laid off from her $90,000-a-year job as a senior software engineer.

Six months later, still out of work, Humphries can relate to the bumper stickers on the AFL-CIO bus: "I'd Rather Be Working." And "Where Are the Jobs?"

Randy Fleming, 48, may be one of the few on the bus who feels fairly secure with his paycheck. He makes $68,000 a year running precision measuring equipment for Boeing in Wichita, Kan. But as a shop steward for the local union, he said he's seen too many of his co-workers handed pink slips after having put in more than 20 years of service.

That's why he's on the bus.

"I'm feeling pain, and I think we should make sure that everyone in America feels it too," Fleming said. "We've got big problems out there. It's time America wakes up."

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