The New War on Workers

Labor Matters

Volume CVII, No. 1January, 2007

Joel LeFevre

Reality today is that working Americans are woefully unprepared for retirement. We are well on the way to having retirees become the largest group of miserably poor people in society. Retired folks just won’t have adequate income. They also won’t be independent and will have to depend on someone else for the basics.

In 1964, two-thirds of retirees had incomes below the poverty line. But the strength of the union movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s started to change that. Workers who had union contracts saw the beginning of long-term pension plans.

Retiree poverty was a national shame that was only changed by the growth of pensions and raising Social Security benefits by more than half. It was part of the “War on Poverty,” as coined by Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

The AFM pension fund was built to be a pillar of security for the retirement years. The economic support that the AFM pension plan provides to tens of thousands of retired musicians is evidence of the value of the union.

The heyday of union gains in bargaining in the 50’s and 60’s created the middle class and also today’s independent retirees. Corporations went along with the consensus that funding retirement was worthwhile.

But the 90’s ushered in a new form of greed. Selfishness began demolishing our pension systems for the generations after the baby boomers. One part of the demolition was done with a “bait and switch” routine. Instead of pensions, workers now found themselves with 401k’s. What’s in many of these accounts? Employer stock. What happens if the employer tanks? We found out the answer with Enron and WorldCom. Those pensions are worthless now.

Instead of over two-thirds of working Americans being covered by guaranteed pensions as they were in 1980, less than one-third have them today. Pensions are replaced by the “personal savings plan” model of 401k’s or 403b’s. The majority of the baby boom generation will be the last to receive the pension benefits of union gains of the 50’s and 60’s.

Long-term commitments have been replaced by pressure for short-term gains driven by billions in bonuses for corporate leaders. Their backers on Wall Street are sending us back to the bad old days.

And what about Social Security? “Reforming” the Social Security system really means taking insurance benefits away from today’s working Americans in the name of “responsibility.” This grand idea is given to us from the same group that has borrowed more money than any other group of people in the history of the world — and we and our kids get to pay the bill. They have created an ethos in our country that has changed the attitude of financial institutions.

Union busting is a big part of the attack on retirement. The attitude of Big Business used to be that “unions are O.K. — just not here.” But now the accepted view is that “unions are just bad for business.” Bargaining becomes all about destroying the union through givebacks. Contrast this with collective bargaining in the past, where concessions were only demanded when actually needed.

The bottom line is that poverty for retirees may soon become the norm again.


The attacks on pensions and Social Security are just the tip of the iceberg.

The central ideas of freedom in our country are being rapidly eroded with little notice by the corporate owned media.

Freedom of speech was recently narrowed by Bush’s Supreme Court. By a 5 to 4 decision, whistleblowers who enlighten the public about misbehavior or waste by their government bosses are no longer protected from reprisal.

Eight hundred years of English common law were tossed out the window as “detainees” no longer have the right of habeas corpus and a trial, and instead can be tortured.

The freedom of association to form a union is no longer enforced by the executive branch.

Twenty years of conservative judicial appointments by Reagan and two Bushes have meant that workers better not try to use the courts to find justice. Laws are twisted and used to attack workers.

It’s clear that if you’re a worker, the government doesn’t have your back. But that means we’d better get together and learn to fight smart, or fascism may well be the future form of government. If so, retirement and Social Security will be the least of our problems.

Selling fear is the political coin of the realm — the fear of terrorists, the fear of people who are different from you, the fear of having an open society where evil intent lurks undetected. The slogan of the empire is: trust no one except those in your home. And if you are not with us, you are against us.

We’ve been here before. The 1950’s were a great time for paranoia and the flowering of racism. It’s not a return trip I look forward to at all.