Baby boomers: Wake up!

By Ellen Ratner

President Bush finally revealed his true “vision” for the American worker last week at a Bush-Cheney ’04 rally. He said American workers used to work for one company for 30 years, earn a pension, get health-care benefits and retire. He said this model is no longer valid.

Now, workers rarely stay at one job. Never mind the fact that this “new American worker” may not be choosing multiple employers given the fact that 3 million of them have lost their jobs on the president’s watch. But that point aside, the president believes that benefits should be transportable. He believes workers should be able pay into retirement funds and take them with them when they change (or lose) their job.

President Bush’s pension vision is consistent with what is happening to pensions around the country. Companies are defaulting on their employees at a rate fast enough to have the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation on Zoloft. The steel industry was arguably the first to be hit. An acquaintance of mine put in 29 years of his life – over half of his life – only to find out there was no gold at the end of the rainbow. The bankruptcy judge and union agreed that the cutoff for pensions was 30 years. Twenty-nine years and 11 months seniority means you get zippo. Thirty years, you get some retirement.

So what does the president propose we do with the millions of Americans who rely on a pension today? His solutions redefine the concept of “long-term.” His entire economic plan is “long-term.” I can sum up the president’s economic policy in two words: “stock market.” His tax policy is designed to boost investment in the stock market. The list includes corporate dividend tax cuts, corporate tax cuts, tax cuts for those who already have money to gamble with in the stock market and the crown jewel, the privatization of Social Security.

Granted, he has backed off some of his intentions to privatize social security, thanks to the likes of men like “Kenny Boy Lay” down in Enron country, but there are plenty of new signs that he still holds out hope. I like Carol Moseley Braun’s response to the question of privatizing Social Security during the Democratic presidential debates: “I thought we stopped talking about that after Enron and MCI.”

Don’t get me wrong, the president does feel the pain of American workers. He told a group of Mississippi (read: MCI victims) in August of 2002 that:

We’ve got to do more to protect worker pensions. Right now, too many workers are locked into plans that force them to hold a large portion of their accounts in their company stock. There are a lot of plans that won’t let people diversify. And that’s not right. I believe workers ought to be able to diversify after three years in their company’s plan. I think we ought to trust workers with their own money.

OK, fine, two years later, almost to the date, he’s saying the same thing. Meanwhile, American workers are waiting for the next shoe to drop.

The public sector is not safe either. Take for example the employees of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, home of American’s nuclear (or as the president says, nodular) technology. The University of California has had the contract to operate the laboratory since its inception. Many of the laboratory’s employees are retiring baby boomers. Oddly enough, the University of California may now lose the contract, and the employees will lose their pensions or be subject to the renegotiated pensions stipulated by the new contract.

One need not look far for the growing pension crisis. United Airlines is about ready to flush its pension in order to emerge from Chapter 11. Why wouldn’t a company flush over 4 billion dollars of debt if they could legally do so? There has not been an official announcement – as H.W. Bush would say, “wouldn’t be prudent” to do so during peak travel season.

But most employees realize it is a foregone conclusion. These are the same employees who gave up salaries and pension contributions to “buy” the company almost a decade ago. One pilot I spoke with has already lost $500,000 in stock and forgone wages, never to return, and now seems likely to lose the rest of his pension. Expect the rest of the legacy carriers to follow United’s lead, as the airline industry resembles a game of dominoes.

Yes, pensions are expensive for companies, expensive for cities. Yes, we have an antiquated network of employee benefits in this country. It’s a simple math problem. There are not enough young to support the old. But President Bush’s administration has been AWOL (Absent Without Leave) on this issue. He recognized a problem in 2002. It’s now 2004 and the only change is that more companies are defaulting on their pensions. Speeches are fine, but action is better.

The president, once again, is determined to let the market dictate the future. Whether it’s outsourcing to cheap labor, or importing cheap labor or flushing pensions, it’s the market that rules this country, not the president. These are the realities we face, but wouldn’t it be nice to have someone in charge who can implement a way for the American worker to transition into the new economy?

Yes, globalization is here to stay. It means that the standard of living of the world is improving, that is, everywhere except in George W. Bush’s America.