WASHINGTON – Diane Fleming had a challenge for the crowd.
As she gazed out at a throng of hundreds of unionists and senior citizens, massed on a lawn north of the U.S. Capitol on a sunny day with the structure’s great dome as their backdrop, the retired Machinist declared: “You’ve been given a lot of facts here. Now we need to get out there with them.
“Get your children, get your friends, get everybody you can to make a difference. Get them to register if they haven’t,” and then cast ballots on Nov. 4 for – and work beforehand for – only those politicians who will protect Social Security and Medicare, she declared.
Fleming, now a member of the labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans, was the windup speaker at the rally, which attracted ARA members along with Bricklayers, AFSCME members, Communications Workers, Teamsters, Teachers and Service Employees.
All the unionists, and the parade of prominent Democrats who preceded Fleming, came to defend the two large, popular programs for the elderly from what they called a looming threat of future cuts if Republicans hold the U.S. House and take the Senate this fall.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., provided many of the facts the crowd needed: That the number of workers whom traditional “defined benefit” pensions cover has dropped by 50 percent in the last decade, that the median Social Security recipient gets $1,200 in monthly benefits, that household debt has soared by 83 percent since 2001 “and that we’re $6.6 trillion short in savings” for retirement.
“And when you ask them (the Republicans) how they would replace cuts” in Medicare, “their answer is to push costs off onto already hurting families,” Warren added.
Put all those facts together with the fiscally healthy Social Security program, and with increasing fiscal health of Medicare, Warren said, and you see that Social Security, which workers earned over the years, is often their only retirement lifeline.
The Democratic speakers emphasized their party has supported Social Security since its enactment by FDR and a Democratic-run Congress in 1935 and Medicare even before its enactment by LBJ and a Democratic-run Congress in 1965, while Republicans opposed both.
Speakers also jabbed at Social Security privatization plans by former GOP President George W. Bush, which unions and Democrats defeated in 2005, and a Medicare voucher scheme that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, D-Wis., advocates.
No Republicans spoke. GOP “opposition research” trackers filmed the event. “If they think they can get fodder” for campaign ads, “they’re crazier than I thought,” the emcee said.
But as a result, before Fleming’s remarks, the rally resembled a Democratic campaign event. That, too, was understandable: The election is 50 days away and traditionally off-year elections see a higher turnout share from Republican-oriented voters.
The rally also pointed up a problem that ARA, unions and their allies face: Seniors vote in larger numbers than other electoral blocs, and they’ve trended Republican for most of the last few decades. An education campaign, Fleming and the others insisted, can change minds, however.
“The tea party Republicans want to turn Social Security over to Wall Street,” said Rep. Richard Nolan, D-Minn., one of the politically most-endangered House Democrats. “We can’t let them do that.”
“People are still scared and people don’t share our values” of protecting the two programs, added House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “They want to take us back to the failed policies of the Bush administration,” including the pro-Wall Street policies that led to the Great Recession, she added. “The question is: ‘Whose side are you on?'”
“They scare people,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said of the Republicans. “They divide the country. Scaring people is not standing up for people…They try to make it a race to the bottom, not lifting all boats to the top.
“If we want to keep Social Security and Medicare, what do we have to do on Nov. 4?” she asked. “Vote!” the crowd chanted. “And who do we have to vote for?” “Democrats.”
Taking up Fleming’s theme, Weingarten stated both seniors and unionists “will knock on every door and make every phone call” to help pro-Social Security-and-Medicare candidates.
Even so, it’ll be an uphill battle from now through the election, warned the AFL-CIO‘s representative at the rally, James Gilbert, executive director of the federation’s Veterans Council. He noted 40 percent of Social Security recipients are veterans or their families.
“We know it’ll not be easy, but you don’t fight just the fights you know you can win,” Gilbert declared. “You fight the ones you need to fight.”