In Arthur Miller’s classic play, “Death of a Salesman,” aging traveling salesman Willy Loman pleads for his job with the son of the man who hired him and is about to fire him. Exasperated and fearful, Willy shouts that “promises were made across this desk!”

To no avail. Willy is out and as his world unravels, he suffers a breakdown and commits suicide in a desperate, futile hope his family can collect on his insurance.

The parallels between Willy Loman’s heart-breaking plight and that facing millions of American retirees is striking, disturbing and by no means exaggerated. Indeed, promises that once were made to millions of workers who helped build their companies (and this country) are now being broken with impunity. The stiff, cold, corporate rationales are:

“We have to cut benefits to remain competitive.”

“We have to make the numbers, increase shareholder value, boost the bottom line.”

And what of the many who suddenly find themselves without health care and quite possibly in a menacing and uncertain future, without pensions as well? Are they supposed to emulate Willy Loman, climb in their cars and smash themselves to smithereens? Are they to end their lives as sacrificial lambs on the altar of Darwinian capitalism?

Don’t think that if the current trend continues there won’t be a significant increase in the number of suicides of retirees at the end of their financial rope. My fellow Minnesotan, Sinclair Lewis, wrote in 1935 with bitter irony and astounding prescience, “It Can’t Happen Here.” But of course it can and in fact it already is. It must be stopped. Now.

The media have paid only sporadic attention. But, as Willy Loman’s sad and beleaguered wife, Linda, declares while watching her husband plunge into the depths of despair and financial ruin, “Attention must be paid.” The very lives of American retirees are now in peril as never before.

Companies are seeking to reduce oreliminate health care benefits for retirees 65 and over if they are on Medicare. And, if corporate lobbyists get their way in Congress and major changes are made in the ERISA laws, retirees also might lose their pensions. It can’t happen here? Think again, especially if George W. Bush receives a second term as president.

Retirees must face up to some other hard facts. Eleven years ago, 46 percent of large companies guaranteed health care benefits. Today, only 28 percent of large firms assist retirees with health care benefits, and overall, only 11 percent of companies do. Those who believe Medicare will take care of them in retirement must realize Medicare typically covers only about half of a retiree’s costs, so most retirees must purchase supplemental insurance, not an easy task for many.

If there is wholesale cutting of retirees’ health care benefits and pensions, this nation might well experience a social upheaval not seen since the days of the Great Depression. With the once-sacred social contract and safety net being shredded before their eyes, retirees facing the economic abyss would have nothing to lose by demanding fundamental changes in the nation’s governmental and economic systems.

Indeed, one can envision (hope for?) massive marches on Washington by the retirees of today and tomorrow, like the civil rights marches of the 1960s, to confront those who refused to act on their behalf, and on corporate headquarters as well. The very foundation of capitalist America would be shaken.

However, the future for retirees is not entirely bleak. The Ad Hoc Coalition to Restore Retirement Security, an all-volunteer organization, has been formed to generate public, presidential candidate and congressional action on this problem. It is a highly diverse mixture of just about every type of retiree you can imagine in terms of age, gender, race, nationality, geography, political affiliation, type of former employer, former occupation and retirement activity.

But the members of the Ad Hoc Coalition are united in their purpose: to make business and industry keep their promises so that retirees may enjoy the fruits of their labor in their “golden” years. After all, retirees are in large part the ones who built their companies to be what most of them are today: golden.

Ad Hoc Coalition members know they occupy the moral high ground on this issue. They know they are fighting for what America is supposed to be all about.

They are setting the example for the retirees of today and tomorrow by refusing to lie down and play dead in the face of those in business and government who place corporate concerns above human worth and dignity.

Retirees should contact their senators and representative in Congress and urge them to promptly enact legislation ensuring that retirees will receive their hard-earned, well-deserved pensions and health care benefits without delay, interruption or revocation.

“Attention must be paid.”

Willard Shapira, of Minneapolis, is a volunteer with the Ad Hoc Coalition to Restore Retirement Security. He can be reached at wshapira @