Calling Social Security “the most profound and effective program in our history,” Congresswoman Diane Watson (D-Calif.) told an April 2 town hall meeting sponsored by the California Alliance of Retired Americans (CARA) that “with Social Security we weave together a safety net that guarantees our independence and economic security.” Watson pointed out that the investment firms pre-selected to participate in President Bush’s privatization scheme were his largest campaign contributors. “These Wall Street sharks will charge anywhere from 15 to 20 percent to ‘manage’ private accounts,” she warned, resulting in benefit cuts and loss of disability and survivors’ benefits.

Bush is a “master of distraction,” said fellow California Rep. Maxine Waters. “He wants you to think about ways to save a system that is solvent until at least 2042 … instead of about his proposals that will destroy it.”

The two Los Angeles congresswomen agreed with the audience that three things — rolling back tax cuts for the richest 1 percent of Americans, raising the cap on income contributions to Social Security, and ending the war in Iraq and bringing the troops home — would more than fund Social Security into the next century.

Reps. Watson and Waters are among 13 California members of the House of Representatives, also including northern California’s Barbara Lee and Pete Stark, who have signed onto CARA’s pledge to protect Social Security.

At a CARA-sponsored town hall meeting in Oakland, April 9, spokespeople for Lee and Stark urged union members, retirees, youth and community members to step up the fight to protect Social Security.

CARA’s northern California director, Jodi Reid, pointed out that the debate on Social Security serves to mask the real problems faced by Medicare. She warned that the administration is not acting to contain health care costs, but instead “is coming after our benefits.”

“Earlier we had a struggle for civil rights, now we need a fight for economic rights,” said San Jose State University student Alessandra Harris of Americans Uniting Americans, which will rally on the campus for Social Security May 9. “I’d rather rely on the government than a corporation like Enron that can go belly up,” she added.

“Leave it alone, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” Oakland retiree Dorothy M. Grate told the World. “What about those who don’t have what I have?” said Grate, whose brother-in-law and disabled sister live on Social Security. “I’m fighting for them, too.”

Nationwide, demonstrations in over 70 cities March 31 highlighted the role of Charles Schwab & Co. — which built its reputation on serving the small investor — in campaigning for Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security.

In Connecticut, working families, union leaders, retirees and college students rallied in front of Charles Schwab offices in West Hartford and Stamford to demand the brokerage firm drop support for privatizing the program.

Worried managers inside the West Hartford office closed the blinds to avoid seeing the protesters, whose chants rose louder as their numbers grew.

Like others across the country, the demonstration sent a strong message to all investment firms and President Bush: “Don’t pick our pockets to line yours, by borrowing $5 trillion to give Wall St. $900 billion. The people must say, No way!”

A delegation delivered a signed letter from the Greater Hartford Central Labor Council, urging Schwab to withdraw all support from privatizing Social Security. On their return, they said representatives of the office pretended to know nothing about private accounts from Social Security going to the firm.

Before the demonstration ended, participants let Charles Schwab know, “If you continue, we will be back!”

In Philadelphia, workers from many unions joined students, seniors and members of community organizations at a lunch-hour rally outside Schwab’s Center City offices. Many passers-by stopped to listen, express support and join the rally.

Among speakers was AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, who hailed the unity shown by the diverse groups represented in the crowd.

Carl Lipscombe of Jobs with Justice’s Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) told how he had depended on Social Security benefits to survive and then to graduate from college, after both his parents died when he was young.

Richard McCurdy, president of Laborers Union Local 57, urged participants to make sure family and friends understand the issues involved. “We stopped that war in Vietnam when we were able to turn out hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.

A delegation including Trumka and Philadelphia AFL-CIO President Pat Eiding delivered a letter urging Schwab to stop supporting privatization. They said they were treated with respect.

Diane Topakian, political director of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, told the World after the rally, “This threat to privatize Social Security is an assault not only on working Americans, seniors and the disabled; it threatens future generations of workers as well.”

Joseph and Martha Hancock, Marilyn Bechtel, Dorothy Johnson and Ben Sears contributed to this article.