For everybody who isn’t asleep, it’s obvious that American employers intend to destroy all hope of “golden years” retirement. They intend to work us until we die. The latest nail being driven into our collective coffin is the announcements by IBM and Verizon that they will “freeze” employee pension plans and substitute 401(k) programs. Current employees are to accrue no more benefits, future employees will get none, and everybody who already has a pension is likely having trouble sleeping at night.
Retirement packages that were considered rock-solid secure are now decimated by bankruptcy courts and vicious employers. Even protection from the mighty Auto Workers union, which pioneered fixed-benefit pensions just after World War II, can no longer be counted on. The UAW just agreed, for the first time in its history, to concessions for current retirees along with future retirees.
“Guaranteed” health care “rights” for pensioners are even more unstable. At least the pension plans are partially underwritten by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). Health care “rights” are not underwritten at all. Companies unburdened by union contracts can terminate health care for their retirees just about whenever they want to. Those with union contracts are implementing the same scare tactics that General Motors used on the UAW to pressure for concessions.
It seems crazy because it is.
American workers were producing plenty of wealth in the 1940s to finance pension plans and health care for retirees. Any glance at productivity figures will show that they are producing much more now. Productivity has run far ahead of the increase in the workforce. There’s more than enough wealth to go around.
In fact, anybody who stops and thinks for a minute will realize that it has been possible for some time to lighten our workload by shortening the working week. European workers have shorter hours and longer vacations, while working hours continue to grow in the U.S. The wealth is being produced, and yet, employers tell us that there isn’t enough.
How did we get into this mess?
There is a big black hole in American history. We never look at the period 1946-1956. If we look at it at all, it’s through rose-colored glasses that lie and say that American workers made great gains.
In truth, we American workers lost our butts in that period. We began 1946 with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) kicking employers’ butts in every workplace. The CIO stood against racism and anticommunism and for unity. It stood for international cooperation. It also stood for national health care and continuing improvements in Social Security. It’s those last two that I’m focusing on right now.
Beginning in 1947, with the Cold War assault on the unions and passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, many CIO leaders joined the cold warriors by driving out every progressive member they could reach. They ran away from international solidarity. They expelled a large number of unions, then formed dual unions and took over their contracts. Eleven of America’s most progressive CIO unions were destroyed. By the time the CIO rejoined the reactionary old AF of L, in 1956, it was hard to tell the difference between the two.
In the late 1940s, when the Auto Workers negotiated employer pension plans and employer health care for their members, they turned their backs on the rest of the working class. They tied themselves, instead, to the fortunes of “their” employers. Other unions, after they had kicked out every progressive member, did the same.
By 1983, the situation had become completely ridiculous. Unions were forming “joint” committees in every workplace, and union membership, for many, began to mean support for the bosses. Even now, when employers are shafting their employees openly every day, some unions continue to join their bosses in television ad campaigns!
It’s important to note that, between 1947 and 1956, American unions had given up national health care and enhanced Social Security in favor of employer-provided benefits exclusively for union members. Nonunion workers were left to the mercy of the bosses. Declining union membership, after a peak in 1957, guaranteed that union workers would eventually be almost as helpless. Workers cannot win when we are divided.
That’s what happened.
Jim Lane (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a labor activist in North Texas.