Labor Advocate Online

Fixing Social Security
by Bill Onasch

Next Wednesday will mark a milestone in my life I have looked forward to since my high school graduation 45 years ago–I get my first Social Security check. It won’t be a lot. I figure it’s roughly equivalent to what I would earn as an entry level "associate" at the world’s biggest private employer–Wal-Mart. But, unlike most Wal-Mart workers I don’t have any kids to support, I have a generous household expense agreement with the person whose home I share, and a car paid off that should last me several years. So I am hoping it will be sufficient to sustain my modest life style.

According to President Bush, I am one of those responsible for an enormous crisis. My paltry monthly check weighs like an aircraft carrier anchor around the necks of younger workers. I have become a parasite on those already struggling to feed their families.

While the issue is fresh the pitch is old as the hills. Those that rule America are a tiny minority. To get voluntary compliance with their picking our pockets clean depends on masking class relations–denying us recognition of our majority status with interests opposed to theirs--and driving deep wedges into working class solidarity.

Young workers are being pitted against old. Workers of all ages, who are dependent on wages from a boss, and who have little say about their lives at work, are being offered great promise in an "ownership society."

Bush’s Social Security scam–the boldest attack yet on one of the few social benefits ever won by American workers–would eventually redistribute trillions of dollars from wannabe "owners" still working for bosses to the real owners of society–those employing the wannabe owners.

Bush’s proposal may be more of a concept than an action plan ready to be implemented but it is nothing if not audacious. It would be a giant step in the thus far incremental chipping away at a nearly bankrupt "social contract." There are also many Bush wannabes imitating his expenditure of "political capital" on state levels–including Governor Blunt in Missouri.

But bold also implies risk. There is always the chance that, deviating from recent behavior norms, the labor movement might help launch a massive defense of our most sacred benefit. There is even a chance that such a struggle could defeat this attempted grand larceny. That would be very bad news for our rulers. That kind of stuff could quickly get out of hand.

Fear of such a backlash is why the bosses and bankers never put all their fragile proverbial eggs in a single vulnerable basket. After all they invented the good cop/bad cop routine. They retain two political parties. They are ready to "compromise" if need be. Some of us remember the last big compromise on Social Security in the early Eighties.

Because of the inflationary recession left over from the Carter administration, greatly exacerbated by Reagan’s supply side economics, Social Security was in real danger then. Reagan proposed drastic cuts that ran into heated opposition.

But then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan sat down with Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and these two "adversaries" hammered out a "compromise." This 1983 "reform" not only hiked payroll taxes and corralled millions of public sector workers previously outside the Social Security pool; it also raised normal retirement age and set future increases in penalties for "early" retirement–such as I receive. All this was given a relieved blessing by the leadership of the labor movement at the time.

Already we are hearing talk of another bi-partisan compromise to "fix" Social Security. Certainly any such deal would include pushing retirement age back even further and would probably involve downsizing the formula used to calculate benefits. Now that’s a real threat to younger workers–unlike my Wal-Mart sized monthly stipend.

If union leaders and the AARP show an inclination to accept such further gradual erosion of Social Security the bosses may well be willing to take privatization off the table and leave Bush twisting in the wind–just as Reagan had to take one for the gipper in 1983. Some of our leaders may well proclaim such a give-back a "victory"–they are, after all, well experienced with such spin–but rather than "fix" Social Security it would just put future retirees in an unpleasant fix.

All of the discussion about fixing Social Security makes an assumption that our nation can no longer afford to provide benefits once envisioned. Let’s think about that a moment.

Social Security was established in the midst of the worst depression ever known in the history of capitalism. There was massive unemployment. Major companies went bankrupt and many banks failed. Wages had been steadily falling. But we’re too poor today to make good on the modest promises made then?

Of course we are promptly told that people now live much longer than when Social Security was launched. That’s true. Due to advances in medical technology, along with better diets, health education, etc., the average life span has increased considerably.

It should be noted that this improvement has been very uneven. Whites live quite a bit longer than Blacks; women outlive men by several years; and white collar workers can expect substantially greater longevity than blue. Still, we have to grant that the Establishment is not getting off as cheaply now as when our parents and grandparents died at earlier ages.

But technological development hasn’t been limited to just medicine. When today’s workers retire they haven’t just produced a bit more in their work lives than those hanging it up in the 1930s; productivity has multiplied many times over. Thanks to this work, our society is far from being collectively poorer than we were in the 1930s. In fact, largely due to our efforts in the workplace, we have created the wealthiest society in human history.

Instead of trying to force march workers to toil until the age of seventy–which many are suggesting–our increased productivity should entitle workers who want to retire to go earlier. Some European countries, who have even longer life spans than we, have set age sixty as a normal retirement age.

(Though I love my country I sometimes feel envious of those Europeans. While I can currently handle a day’s work–unfortunately unpaid– in front of the computer fine, by age 60 I found the toll exacted driving a 40-foot transit bus no longer acceptable. But I paid dearly financially for early retirement.)

The timing of Bush’s proposal has nothing to do with any "crisis" in Social Security. By all estimates the present set-up can provide current benefit levels for decades. But Bush, and the class he represents, is on a roll right now. They’ve got us scared of our own shadows looking for terrorists. They’ve framed all discussion around the premise we are poorer and must make sacrifices. They’ve encountered no significant political opposition. Until they get some shove in response they are going to keep pushing, rolling back everything we have won in the past.

This fight is of historic importance not just because of Social Security–as vital as that benefit is–but because all of our benefits, our very living standards, are in mortal danger. Counting on the Democrat politicians to save us is to surrender before the end of the first round. The best we can hope for from them is another give-back "compromise."

If the labor movement is to survive as a real force it will have to stop apologizing for what we have, stop give-backs, stop spinning grave setbacks into proud victories.

We need to honestly take our case to the workplaces and communities, telling the truth about Social Security and those attacking it–both the privateers and the "fixers."

Following the example of the civil rights and Vietnam antiwar movements organized labor should call a March On Washington, and bring hundreds of thousands to the capital to demand "Hands Off Social Security!"

And, not least of all, the labor movement should abandon their servile relationship with the bosses’ other party–the Democrats–and start building a party of our own. We’ve had no luck with "friends of labor" in office. We need labor in office if we are to even hang on to what we’ve got.

February 4, 2005

Detailed analysis of the Social Security issue can be found on the KC Labor Social Security resource page.