Compassion for BP, Contempt for Jobless: What Is to Be Done?

Roger Bybee

Jimmy Labat holds his brother Michael while waiting in a line with unemployed commercial fishermen and their families for hand-outs from Catholic Charities in May in Hopedale, La.

Republicans are confidently taking some enormous political gambles in recent days, betting on the continuing absence of public displays of outrage to their short-sighted policies.

On the one hand, numerous Republican and their right-wing talk-show allies have been by expressing sympathy for the imagined victimization” of BP over the catastrophic oil spill. (Naomi Klein’s account of the long-term impact is particularly insightful.) But at the same time they have room in their tiny little hearts for BP, the Republicans are escalating their tough s_​_​_​ “ policy — as GOP Sen. Jim Bunning so memorably put it — against the long-term jobless by letting benefits run out for 1.2 million unemployed workers and their families. 

For the third time, the Republicans recently blocked a new extension to unemployment benefits for long-term jobless workers who have exhausted their benefits because the weak recovery has produced so few jobs.


Helped along by the odious new Lieberman clone, Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the Republicans have contended that the nation cannot afford to spend an additional $33 billion to provide extended benefits. This right-wing bloc is also opposing President Obama’s request for $23 billion for emergency aid to the states to spare 300,000 schoolteacher from layoffs. 

Unfortunately, the Democrats seem to be stressing the preposterously bad economics of the Republicans, correctly pointing out that such benefits stimulate the economy as they immediately get spent for groceries, gas, and mortgage payments.

But the Democrats may be making a serious strategic blunder here. While true, the economic arguments is a slightly wonkish framing of the issue, insisting that a stimulus is more economically sensible than deficit reduction. That’s true, course.

However, the Democratic pitch is unlikely to win over and mobilize the unemployed, who have displayed relatively little public outrage thus far and feel that no one in Washington understands their plight.

The Democratic fight for extended benefits and job programs would have much more force if they framed the issue in easily-understood and fundamental moral terms: So, are you Republicans willing to have millions of long-term jobless workers and family members suffer because you have exhausted your compassion on BP?” 


The Republicans’ barely-concealed rationale for refusing to provide more jobless benefits is that the jobless really would rather not work, preferring to live in poverty, insecurity, and social isolation. The GOP thinking was defended by conservative columnist George Will in these revealing terms: the Republicans have adopted this position partly because they believe that when you subsidize something, you get more of it. And we’re subsidizing unemployment, that is the long-term unemployment…”

Meanwhile, a remarkably more generous spirit has been extended toward BP, which earned $14 billion in profits, piled up thanks to a stunning level of disregard for worker safety and the environment. As ABC News reported,

BP’s safety violations far outstrip its fellow oil companies. According to the Center for Public Integrity, in the last three years, BP refineries in Ohio and Texas have accounted for 97% of the egregious, willful” violations handed out by the Occupational Safety and Health ” for the industry.

OSHA statistics show BP ran up 760 egregious, willful” safety violations, while Sunoco and Conoco-Phillips each had eight, CITGO had two and Exxon had one comparable citation.

BP’s contempt for safety has taken an awful human toll: the deaths of 11 oil workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig April 20 and 15 more deaths at a BP refinery in 2005 in Texas City, along with other instances. 


At a House Energy Committee hearing, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas — a major recipient of oil and gas industry campaign contributions” — theatrically apologized to BP’s CEO Tony Hayward for the Obama administration supposedly confiscating a private corporation’s riches. Barton labeled a White House-BP agreement on cleanup costs a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown, a $20 billion shakedown.”

Barton’s statement was such a craven capitulation to BP that even other Republicans, more discreet about their sympathy for the oil company, forced him to apologize for his apology to Hayward.) But the batty Barton was not alone. House Minority Leader John Boehner had earlier suggested that the federal government should bear part of the cleanup costs for the BP disaster, but later softened his statement.

Other Republicans like Nevada Senate candidate Sharren Angle stated that BP – like the rest of the oil and petroleum industries – had been over-regulated.” Angle did not clarify how over-regulation” permitted BP to engage in such a risk venture as drilling down 5,000 feet into the ocean floor.

In their shrill defenses of BP, Angle and Barton put themselves on the extreme edge of the Republican Party, but virtually the entire party has turned into an extremist cult acting in zombie-like unison. They can’t help themselves from showing their ingrained identification with a huge corporation, no matter how gargantuan its crimes.

The congressional Republicans’ only visible motives are to serve and protect their corporate sponsors as ferociously as possible and to use equal zeal to block any initiative by President Obama 


Of course, the Republican approach results in what the U.S. war machine calls collateral damage” on innocent victims like the increasingly desperate jobless. In past pieces, I have discussed the profound and deep long-term health effects–both physical and mental – of being unemployed for extended periods of time.

The jobless often feel cut off from the community, out of touch with their old friends from work, and sometimes downright useless to their families. Their impulses are to avoid seeking help as long as possible in order to preserve a sense of self-reliance, as grimly evidenced by the jobless workers in Wausau, Wis. who come to the local dental clinic only after they have tried and failed to extract their own infected teeth.

With relatively few jobs actually materializing despite all the administration talk about the recovery,” the exhaustion of unemployed benefits will become unbearable for many jobless people barely feeding their families and managing to stay in their own homes. 


It is also hitting hard at single individuals who suddenly found themselves forded to rely on their families after a lifetime of independence. For example, I received this very moving e-mail from a jobless woman named Mary in Utah, who feels betrayed and frightened by the Republicans’ blocking of extended benefits:

Now what? Now what do we do now that they have cut us off from any extensions? I have been reading many, many blogs about people’s stories, not knowing what to do next. It is very scary and very sad.

I am a single 54 year old woman and have been living with family members, first my daughter in California, then my son in Oregon and now my Parents in Utah. I have been looking for work for over a year now, [as I have ]been laid off since July 2008. I have yet to find a thing in any of these states.

Also, I am finding employers are paying way lower wages these days, how can I support myself off very little wages (well, I think I would take the job no matter what) I have had one interview and the first thing our of her mouth was there is no way I can pay you what you were paid”) Or I am over qualified” or don’t have one little part of [the preferred] job experience.

Reading all the blogs I realize I am not alone in what I am experiencing, I am not alone is not believing in those running our country. I am not alone in wanting to really be heard, make our stand and make our voices heard.

No, Mary, you’re not alone, as there are at least 15 million people in the same boat with you.

First, contact the International Association Machinists’ Ur Union of the Unemployed” to get in touch with other unemployed people in your area, to share support and plan action. Second, contact the AFL-CIO in your area and urge them to actively support a news conference or other public action about the plight of people like yourself facing the unemployment benefits cut-off. Just start organizing and spreading the truth.

It’s heartening to hear from people have managed to remain resilient and determined, despite taking so many discouraging hits.

Keep in mind, the Republicans have placed a huge bet that people in your spot will remain silent and keep on taking their abuse while they grandstand for their corporate funders and the increasingly fanatical party base.

It’s time to show them (and Democrats like Ben Nelson and the Blue Dogs) that payback time has arrived.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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