Monday, November 28, 2016

Pension Promise? What Pension Promise?

There is a longstanding myth that the right wing, and the corporate interests they represent, abhor government waste and taxes. In the world they live in, behind every problem facing mankind is government spending, and the solution to every problem is another tax cut. At least, that is the perception they have managed to create to convince a large portion of the wage earning classes to support them.
Never mind that the family of four with household earnings of less than $40k probably isn't actually paying taxes anyways. And never mind that the social programs and government waste they complain about are probably going to numerous services and safety nets that actually benefit that same family. We want to get government out of our lives, and you know... Make America Great Again, right?
This morning I read two separate articles from two separate states about public employee pensions. In the Des Moines Register article, the republican governor is mulling the conversion of public employee pensions into 401k accounts. In the Detroit Free Press article, there is discussion about converting public employee pensions into... wait for it... 401k accounts. And both pieces make mention of the Koch Brothers funded group, Americans for Prosperity.
If you're wondering why so many billionaires like the Kochs and the Trumps are suddenly taking such a selfless interest in saving us all and turning the country around after spending their entire lives only looking out for their own greedy self-interests, you can rest assured that absolutely nothing has changed. I am left almost speechless when I hear people say things now like, "I'm glad that business people have control of our government, because now they can use their business experience to help this country."
In actuality, what we are about to witness is the wholesale redistribution of the remainder of the nation's wealth, to the already wealthiest individual families. It's not about reducing taxes, or cutting waste, or making our lives better. It's all about greed. Period.
The conversion of our pension benefits under the guise of saving the taxpayers, serves two purposes. First, it is union busting. These are only a small step in finishing off the labor movement by attacking their pensions funds. It will start with the public sector funds, converting them to individual 401k accounts. They will then move on to the federal sector pensions.
We should also expect to see an immediate change in the acceptable amount of unfunded liability for green light defined benefit (union Taft-Hartley) plans. Wait? What? I know... that's a lot of strange words all in one sentence. What it amounts to is that the Bush administration used a system of monitoring union pension plans in the private sector. Because they loved the use of color codes (remember the terrorism threat levels based on a color spectrum that nobody understood?), they set criteria for pension plans that said if you had a certain percentage of unfunded liability, the government could step in, take over your plan and hand the whole thing over to the pension benefit guarantee corporation (PBGC). Under the PBGC, workers and retirees can reasonably expect to get mere pennies on the dollar promised to them.
When Obama took office, the markets had tanked thanks to the housing market debacle, and so many plans were underfunded based on Bush's fuzzy, union busting math, that the PBGC would have itself been insolvent. So the new administration changed the acceptable levels for plans and gave them opportunities to merge, make improvement plans, etc.
We can reasonably expect that all of this will be subject to immediate change as a new Republican administration takes office. Because if there's one thing Republicans hate, it's unions, and these billion dollar pension plans being in union control just makes them crazy.
To understand the other aspect, you have to understand how the wealthy view the world. Everything to them is divided into two categories. There are the people and things they can use to profit from, and there is everything and everyone else, which are wasteful and devoid of meaning. No, really. It's true.
When Americans for Prosperity (the Koch Brothers) talk about government waste, they aren't talking about the billions in subsidies they get every year. They aren't railing about their own tax benefits. They aren't talking about the government contracts they themselves have procured. In fact, as I write this they are lobbying against tax extenders. They say these are wasteful extensions. Why are they wasteful? Because the tax extenders they are really talking about are actually alternative energy credits for things like wind and solar power and other things they don't profit from and are actually in competition with their dirty energy business interests.
Likewise, you will never hear them complain about the fact that each government contractor costs the taxpayers two to three times as much as each federal employee. Why? Because they don't care about wasting federal moneys if they can profit from it. It only becomes wasteful in their eyes when dedicated public and federal employees provide them with no means of direct exploitation.
Which brings us right back around to the pensions. Because they look at these huge funds representing the life savings of millions of Americans, and they see an opportunity. There is a reason that every scheme from the right wing involving pensions and social security always ends with 401k's. That reason has absolutely nothing to do with giving Americans more control of their own investments and destinies. It has everything to do with dumping billions of dollars into a market the super rich already control, and making them exponentially richer in the process. 
Do you know what happens to stock prices when millions of new investors start buying? Prices go up. Prices go way up, and an enterprising young man with a few hundred million dollars of his daddy's money in the market, can reasonably expect to grow that into a few billion dollars of our pension money and pull it all out right before the bubble pops. And isn't that what the American dream is all about?  
Someone asked me recently why I use 100 year old cartoons and pictures in my blog. First, I love history. Second, and most important, is because the cartoons, and the stories they tell, are still relevant today. With all of our advancements in time and technology, the struggle has never changed. Our enemies are still the same entitled fat cats as they have always been. Their goals are the same as they always were as they seek ever greater wealth and power over the world we all live in.
And, in 1929, right before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, more average Americans had money in the stock market than at any other time in history. Everything we have is at stake right now. Everything. And all of it has happened before. It isn't serendipity or coincidence either. It's the super rich taking pages from the playbooks their grandfathers wrote, and there are no happy fairytale endings for anyone except for them in their book.

I've been in this union business a good long while now and have witnessed the further erosion of the middle class in recent decades. For years as a union organizer I have dragged workers kicking and screaming into the betterment of themselves by forming and joining unions in their workplaces. I've watched as the most union hating member of bargaining units eventually 'get it' and come crawling into the union office begging for help because the bosses they so loved and the companies they so believed in, had screwed them over. And I helped them too, because that is what the union does.

We, the unions, for all of our warts and pimples and fucked up leadership, are the last best hope for workers and the wage earning classes in this society. We are the alternative to a government that does nothing for you, and employers who only want to exploit you. We will keep on being there too, in one form or another, just like we always have, but now, we need your help to survive and maintain the benefits that our forefathers (and mothers) have accrued for us all to enjoy.

For years we urged and begged and pleaded workers to join the union. For years we have begged and pleaded union members to vote and to call their congressmen when issues required it of them. Historically, men and women had to fight and strike and picket and protest and starve and go to jail to earn all of the hard won protections that we as a people have come to enjoy and take for granted. For our generation, we needed only to join the union. To pay a few dollars in dues. We only had to make a few phone calls a couple of times a year, and vote every two years for the lesser of two evils as it pertained to our wages and benefits and the rights we enjoy. For the most part, we have failed to do even that. And now, here we are.

Every labor protection, from the right to organize, to pensions and even child labor laws, are under scrutiny and attack. Our pensions and healthcare and wages are all suddenly up for debate by men who would seek only to destroy us, to exploit us, and to profit from us. Now, workers want to call their congressional representatives. Now, workers want to get more active. Now, workers want to join the union. All of this is a good sign. All of this is a tiny step in the right direction. And all of this is too little, too late.

It will take more than just paying dues and calling your legislators to win the upcoming battles now. It will require a renewed recognition that we are all in this together against a common foe that is at our gate. And it will require a collective will and courage beyond what has ever been expected of us in our lifetimes.

When asked recently by a worker what she should do in light of everything, I replied that she ought to have her congressional representatives on speed dial. When she gets a text or an email from the union, she better open it and read it immediately. If it calls for action, follow through with it. I told her to subscribe to an actual newspaper and read the thing every day and keep her co-workers informed about what the union is doing and what we are fighting and make sure everybody joins and goes to union meetings.

Then, after all of that has been done, buy a couple of good pairs of walking shoes, and just for good measure, have the card for a bail bondsman in her purse or wallet. Because if the powers that be have reverted to their old tricks, we already know what our response will eventually have to be. Action. Radical direct action. Get your walking shoes on, America. You're going to need them now. And, together, we just might come out of this thing with a renewed sense of purpose that really does make America great again... for all of us.

Almost a 100 years ago, George Milburn penned The Two Bums. The "rods" he is referring to are the steel supports beneath freight trains where hoboes used to ride to avoid detection...
The bum on the rods is hunted down
As the enemy of mankind;
The other is driven around to his club
And feted, wined and dined.

And they who curse the bum on the rods
As the essence of all that is bad,
Will greet the other with a winning smile
And extend him the hand so glad.

The bum on the rods is a social flea
Who gets an occasional bite;
The bum on the plush is a social leech,
Blood-sucking day and night.

The bum on the rods is a load so light
That his weight we scarcely feel,
But it takes the labor of dozens of men
To furnish the other a meal.

As long as you sanction the bum on the plush,
The other will always be there,
But rid yourself of the bum on the plush
And the other will disappear.

Then make an intelligent, organized kick,
Get rid of the weights that crush;
Don’t worry about the bum on the rods,
Get rid of the bum on the plush!


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