Californians vow fight vs. pension privatization

Labor, retiree and community organizations in California are kicking off a campaign to uphold Social Security against the drive of President Bush and Wall Street to privatize the 70-year-old program serving retirees, the disabled, and families of deceased workers. At the same time, they are gearing up to defeat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign to privatize the pensions of California state employees.

“Senior Action Network supports the current Social Security system because it’s not broken,” said SAN Executive Director Bruce Livingston. “The president is manufacturing a crisis so people will invest pension funds in Wall Street at their own risk.”

The San Francisco-based SAN joined the California Labor Federation, San Francisco Labor Council, Gray Panthers and other organizations in a rally at Charles Schwab headquarters Jan. 26 to demand that the country’s largest discount brokerage house denounce the administration’s privatization plans. Schwab is currently funding groups lobbying Congress for private accounts. The AFL-CIO has called Schwab’s support of privatization a conflict of interest similar to previous Wall Street scandals.

Getting the members of California’s congressional delegation publicly committed to upholding Social Security is a main objective of 12 town hall meetings to be held around the state by the California Alliance of Retired Americans (see box).

The meetings will also educate people about why privatization of Social Security is bad and “what simple, painless steps can protect the system as we know it,” said CARA Director Jodi Reid.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein said this week that while she doesn’t want to see Social Security privatized, she also doesn’t oppose a plan for private accounts. Her statement shows that legislators must be made accountable, Reid said.

“Sen. Feinstein seems to be playing both sides of the issue” as she did on prescription drugs, Reid said. “We have got to get the senator to promise, in front of people, that she will not vote for the privatization of Social Security and Medicare.”

Reid also urged involving younger groups, including current workers. “All the polls of people in their 20s and 30s indicate they don’t believe Social Security will be there for them when they retire.”

The California Labor Federation is mapping out an overall program with a coalition of public and private sector unions, to oppose the privatization of public pensions at both the national and state levels, said spokesperson Chloe Osmer. Earlier this month CLF head Art Pulaski pointed out that Gov. Schwarzenegger “is following Bush’s lead in dismantling workers’ retirement funds,” through his plan to force all new state employees into a 401(k)-style plan run by for-profit investment firms.

Social Security has a greater role among traditionally underemployed groups, with higher percentages of the elderly among communities of color and women depending on SSI as their sole or major source of income.

The Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) plans to wage an aggressive campaign this year and next to save Social Security, and will soon announce its official position, said MAPA President Nativo Vigil Lopez. If as Bush alleges, Social Security is headed for bankruptcy, Lopez said, “his plan would certainly bankrupt the system.”

Though Bush’s allegations remain unproven, he added, MAPA would propose two reforms: eliminating the cap on income taxed for Social Security, and banning the use of the program’s reserves to subsidize the federal budget. Lopez also pointed out that undocumented immigrant workers are subsidizing the system since they cannot benefit from payments.

Lopez said MAPA also strongly opposes plans to privatize California state workers’ pensions. In a statement on her website, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) noted that a disproportionately high percentage of those receiving disability benefits are African American, and 40 percent of African American elderly depend on Social Security for all their income.

“Agendas aimed at privatizing Social Security, based on exaggerated rhetoric and fuzzy math, will not solve the problem,” she said. She called for “bipartisan proposals based on realistic fiscal assessments,” and said, “Let’s not deny the financial security and dignity for millions of Americans at the expense of aggrandizing the riches of a few.”

mbechtel@pww.org