Friday, December 19, 2014

The bi-partisan war on pensions.

Look, I found some money
by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

The protests against the murders of black men on a daily basis by the police do not seem to be abating. It is clear that the black community in the US has had enough as we watch black youth and their allies and supporters confront the police and the state and demand change.  The 1% is in between a rock and a hard place as they have not armed the state security forces to the teeth for nothing; but the ferocity and extent of the protests since the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri by a white cop, is forcing the power structure to re-think things and hopefully avert the development of a wider movement against austerity.

As I commented in a previous blog, the situation is not good when sections of the mass media openly criticize the police as CNBC and the Daily News did with regards to the death of Eric Garner, choked to death by a predator cop-----one has to wonder at the logic of resource allocation when four beefed up cops are sent to arrest a man selling loose cigarettes.

The 1% would like to isolate the participants, contain the anger and ensure it remains simply a “black” issue. But US society is wracked with crisis and it is inevitable there will be social explosions ahead as the 1% is driven by the market to savage US workers, the poor and middle class.  There is a tendency when workers move in to struggle to somewhat overcome the social divisions so useful in undermining our unity and potential power, at least temporarily (racism, sexism, immigrants and terrorists lurk everywhere) so it is important we recognize the divide and rule tactic for what it is and keep our eyes on the prize.

As the state security forces continue the offensive against the black communities in the urban centers, the two parties of Wall Street continue to dismantle workers living standards through legislation.  Contained within the spending bill passed by the US Senate last week is an assault on private sector pensions, what are called the multiemployer plans jointly administered by big companies and unions; these cover about ten million workers.

These plans, like everything else in US society, are in trouble and the “bi-partisan” plan to solve the problem is to allow the funds to cut benefits even to existing retirees if needed; “That is an exception to a long-standing federal rule against scaling back private-pension benefits.”, the WSJ writes. Karen Friedman, executive vice president of the Pension Rights Center, warns that, “The bill could encourage similar cutbacks in troubled state and local pension plans, and possibly even Social Security and Medicare.”

This states the obvious of course as the same crowd in Congress are also introducing legislation that will make it harder for workers and the poor to get benefits, including drug testing and other hurdles. A victory over one section of workers always leads to attacks on others.  .  I’m sure Dick Cheney wasn’t drug tested after he shot his hunting partner in the face.

Despite being shook up by the response to the ongoing murder of black men by the police, the 1% can’t let up and as the security forces wage an offensive in the streets and communities, the body politic, the representatives of capital, continue the legislative war, a war in which the very wealthy deprive the rest of us the social fruits of our labor. Alex Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute described as a “scholar” by the WSJ supports this attack on a retired worker’s means of subsistence telling the Journal that “Facing up to the insolvency is healthy,” Pollock admits while its difficult to consider cutting retiree benefits it is often better than “taking money from other people, such as taxpayers.”, according to the WSJ. And retirees aren’t taxpayers? The “other people” for guys like Pollock are never his billionaire friends.

Pollock is a 73 year-old banker and the present chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange & Chicago Board of Trade He earned $90,083 in 2013 in fees and cash payments for his banking advice no doubt and with his stock earnings brought in 165,088 for the year according to Forbes. He sits on the board of numerous companies including Allied Capital Corp. before it was absorbed by Ares Capital.  He’s basically spent his life as a moneylender.

Democrat, George Miller and Republican John Kline who are backing the legislative assault on pensions are doing this for the people.  If they don’t cut the benefits, the plans will become bankrupt they argue and could hurt people more. It’s the same approach to wages in labor disputes; the only offers on the table are cuts in wages and benefits or layoffs. The worker chooses the former and presto, democracy has worked.

So the new plan works like this: The trustees of the plans can vote to cut retiree benefits. The retirees can vote to oppose the cuts but that vote can be overridden if the plan is big enough to pose a “threat to the federal safety net”.  The trustees of these plans and there are around 1400 such pans, are representatives of the employers involved or representatives of the employers’ organizations, as well as union representatives.  So you have the same two forces negotiating your pension plan that are responsible for the continued decline in our living standards, bosses’ and members of the union hierarchy or attorneys representing them.  In other words, two forces with the same pro-market worldview.

Miller and Kline claim they are not aiming to influence the debate about other retirement programs like mine, a public sector pension. Since the savaging of the autoworkers by the Troika, composed of the auto bosses, US government and heads of the United Auto Workers union, public sector workers, our jobs, the services we provide, and particularly our pensions are on the chopping block. This is what happens when we pay no attention to the political world around us, to what’s happening in our unions and to other workers or join the bosses and their media in attacks on the poor and less fortunate----our turn comes and we wonder why.

No thinking worker believes that an attack like this will not be extended to others. Of course it will encourage an increased assault on public sector pensions. Already, since I retired ten years ago, the young people working at my former public employer have been screwed when it comes to pensions. They will not receive what myself and others have and will have to work longer. There is no way around the reality that we are in a war and we cannot avoid a fight if we want a better life for our children. The hardest aspect of that fight for those of us in unions is the internal struggle to change the collaborative polices of the present hierarchy and in a way supported by local leaderships that refuse to wage an open struggle against them.

Some Democrats, as they always do, are whining about the bill and how bad it might be, “This is unprecedented and I worry about the impact on retirees and the slippery slope we’re about to head down,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), the Finance Committee chairman, in a statement. “I am working hard to protect retirees’ pensions, and jamming this bill through Congress virtually sight unseen is no way to solve this issue.” WSJ 12-10-14

It’s the same old rhetoric. Some Democrats are “worried” they are “fighting” etc. etc.  It’s not that one is fighting that is crucial; it’s how they’re fighting. These two parties of Wall Street play the same game the cops do, one gives you a cigarette and the other beats you up but they’re both after the same result.

And the union officialdom tails its Democratic allies.  They are “worried” too but some of them in “Affected unions” are supportive. The problem is that “Amid broad economic changes and light government oversight, some large multiemployer plans have become badly underfunded and could run out of money within a few years.” Proponents claim, and this could lead to a federal bailout. The labor leaders in the “affected unions” that are supportive are supportive because their retirement will not be “affected”. They support concessions for the same reasons, they don’t have to work under the contracts they force down their members’ throats.

It would seem then that “government oversight” and the market is the problem. So the solution should be directed in these areas.  But as always, the crisis is shifted on to the backs of the working class, in this instance, millions of construction workers, Teamsters and miners for a start.  Both political parties agree that the working class must be driven back and it is us that must pay for the crisis of capitalism----they only differ on the degree, pace and which section is at the front of the queue.

Oh, here's some more money
Might I suggest that the more than $32 trillion stashed in foreign bank accounts not paying taxes might be a good place to start when money needs to be found, and this is not corporate but individual money.  The insane War on Terror which is really a war to defend corporate profits fought by young workers who will be denied benefits and pensions in civilian life, is one major cause of government debt and possible bankruptcy. It is the US workers and middle class that are being forced in to bankruptcy in order to pay for these predatory ventures.

Some tech guy just bought a $70 million home in California, there’s no shortage of our money, it’s just in the hands of someone else.  Lobbying costs us billions of dollars, money spent to defend increase the power for corporations over the working public..

It’s hard to say how long the heroic opposition in the streets to police and state violence will last. As always, the issue of leadership is a problem.  In the absence of a conscious leadership with the strategy and tactics to confront this offensive of capital directly, all sorts of elements will arise, various anarchists, reformists, nationalists and others as we have seen. Do Jackson and Sharpton really reflect the mood and aspirations of the black youth for example? We can discount those whose philosophy claims that there is no leadership, this is dishonest, there is always leadership and it should be open and fight for its ideas among the mass. 

One thing is absolutely certain as far as this writer is concerned is that there is an explosion waiting to happen in US society, we have just seen skirmishes so far.  The state has beefed up its security apparatus because it knows that, it cannot avoid driving the US working class back 100 years and is preparing for the backlash. The passive role of the Organized labor’s hierarchy in suppressing any movement from below has produced an element of overconfidence among the ruling class in the US, this can lead to major mistakes on their part. The recent protests against police violence have shaken that confidence a bit.

I always used to tell my co-workers that our best ally in many ways was the bosses’; they will not let up.  That hasn’t changed.

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