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Union Members Urge Congress to Extend Unemployment Benefits

Workers - some employed, some not - gathered at the UAW Local 145 Hall in Montgomery on Thursday to plead with lawmakers to extend the federal unemployment benefits set to expire on Jan. 1.

Kyle Veeder of Montgomery has been looking for work since July.

Veeder is an electrician by trade, and a union member. But he hasn’t found a job in his local area since 2009, he said—his last job took him to Indiana, away from his family. Veeder said he’s not just looking for jobs in his field, either. He’ll take anything he can find that will allow him to take care of his family.

While he searches, though, Veeder is collecting unemployment, like more than 84,000 Illinois families. And unless Congress acts by Dec. 31, extending the federal unemployment benefits that are set to expire on the first of the year, Veeder’s lifeline—and that of more than 84,000 Illinois families—will disappear.

That was the message Thursday, as Veeder joined his fellow union members—some employed, some not—to urge Congress to save those benefits. At a press conference held at the United Auto Workers Local 145 Hall in Montgomery, workers called those benefits their lifeline, especially at a time when jobs are scarce.

Federal lawmakers have not yet come to an agreement on extending the benefits, with Democrats and Republicans disagreeing over how to pay for the $45 billion cost. Federal unemployment benefits kick in after state benefits run out—after 26 weeks—and continue for a maximum of 99 weeks.

Former Congressman Bill Foster, who has declared as a Democratic candidate in the new 11th Congressional District, pointed at Republicans in Congress, and lamented lawmakers’ similar failure to extend payroll tax cuts, which are also set to expire at the end of the year. Those cuts save the average worker about $1,000 in deductions from their paychecks.

“When the Republicans don’t want a tax cut to expire on the very wealthy, it’s an emergency,” Foster said. “But then when a tax break expires for working class people, it’s not as important.”

Foster and Mark Guethle, of Painters District Council 30, specifically mentioned 13th District Rep. Judy Biggert and 14th District Rep. Randy Hultgren, both Republicans. But spokesmen for both representatives said it’s not that simple.

Biggert voted for the bill that previously extended unemployment benefits through December, said her spokesman, Zachary Cikanek.

“She supports the extension, but does want to see it paid for without adding to the debt that is dragging down our economy and killing jobs,” Cikanek said. “Her view is that Congress needs to work together once again this holiday season, and she’s keeping an open mind on what the final compromise should look like.”

Biggert, Cikanek said, is optimistic that a deal can be reached by the end of the year. He pointed to a House Republican measure that will likely come to the floor next week, which would extend the benefits, with “major changes,” according to this report.

Hultgren is similarly confident that a deal will be reached, according to his spokesman, Andrew Flach. Hultgren will not support a plan for those benefits that includes tax increases, Flach said, or increases federal spending.

Both Biggert and Hultgren have announced their intentions to run for re-election. And both have signed the Grover Norquist Anti-Tax Pledge, promising not to vote for any tax increases. Foster said this is the biggest impediment to a reasonable compromise on this issue.

“Contact Hultgren and Biggert and tell them to say no to Grover Norquist and yes to working people,” Foster said.

The unemployed workers on hand Thursday said these benefits are not a Republican or Democratic issue, nor a union or non-union one.

Josh Shaw, an Aurora electrician, said he’s been searching for jobs, but hasn’t had any luck.

“The money from unemployment keeps my family fed, and pays our bills,” he said. “Without it, we’d be homeless.”  

Ken Christy, president of the Illinois State Association of Letter Carriers, said he knows what it feels like to be unemployed, and to depend on those benefits to pay bills. He bristled at the notion that those on unemployment are “lazy,” saying the jobs simply aren’t there, and unemployment benefits help millions get through the lean times.

“You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have any boots,” Christy said.

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