United Steelworkers leader: Republicans want to kill Social Security
Tom Conway, President of the United Steelworkers, says Social Security is a contract, but Republicans are out to break it. | Rebecca Droke / AP

Cliff Carlton was the 10th of 11 children and one of three still living at home when his father, a coal miner, died unexpectedly at 67.

Only his dad’s Social Security benefits, along with vegetables from the family’s small farm in southwestern Virginia, kept the household afloat during the lean years that followed.

That battle for survival made Carlton a lifelong champion of Social Security and a tireless opponent of Republicans in Congress who keep trying to kill this lifeline for the middle class.

“It’s not a gift. It’s money that we’re due,” explained Carlton, a 70-year-old retired tire manufacturer and long-time member of the United Steelworkers (USW). Now president of the Virginia Alliance for Retired Americans, he’s advocated for Social Security for 30 years.

Now there’s a new threat. To secure enough votes to become Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy toadied to extremist Republicans whose demands for radical budget cuts once again put Social Security and Medicare at risk.

They’re openly plotting to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age, moves that would force millions of Americans to work longer. Some even want to slash payments to retirees with other income, regardless of how much they’ve paid into the program.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare warns that this kind of con, called “means-testing,” would end Social Security as Americans know it and take benefits even from those with “very modest incomes.”

“If you lose something, you don’t ever get it back,” observed Carlton.

Social Security is the only resource many retirees have when they outlive the nest eggs they accumulated during their working years.

“My grandmother is 102 years old. She retired at the age of 65” and “still lives on her own,” said Mike Budd, who credits Social Security with enabling his grandma, a former bank teller, to maintain her independence for decades.

“In fact, that’s the reason I’m very passionate about keeping this program around,” said Budd, a Marine veteran who works as a substation electrician at Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO).

President Joe Biden has vowed to protect Social Security and Medicare from these attacks. Still, Republicans are recklessly threatening to careen the federal government toward default unless they get the spending cuts they want.

Many of these lawmakers have huge personal fortunes on top of congressional pensions. They enjoy a level of financial security out of reach of most Americans. “It’s certainly easy to tell people to make do with less when they have more,” noted Budd.

Some Republicans have since soft-pedaled their shenanigans by saying they’ll only cut benefits for future retirees who would have “time to adjust” to the changes, likely by working longer.

That angers Budd, who’s 37 and already trying to plan for his golden years. He’s been paying Social Security taxes since he was a 16-year-old with a summer job.

Instead of cutting essential programs, TJ Stephens said, he’d like to see Republicans agree to fairly tax uber-rich Americans who use dodgy loopholes to pay little or nothing now. And he’d like to see more wealthy tax cheats and deadbeats run to the ground.

Stephens, a USW electrician in New Carlisle, Indiana who’s also 37, regards Social Security as America’s contract with working people. Moving the goalposts and forcing younger Americans already paying into the system to “work ourselves into the grave” is “inhumane,” he said.

Ultimately, Carlson predicted, public anger will stop the Republicans in their tracks. He’s planning to ratchet up his activism and get more retirees to join him.

“It makes a difference,” he said of Social Security. “It’s not something we’re going to give up without an extraordinary fight.”

Institute for Policy Studies / OtherWords


Tom Conway
Tom Conway

Thomas M. Conway was president of the United Steelworkers (USW), the largest industrial union in North America. Elected as the union’s president in 2019, Conway was known for his quick wit, formidable bargaining skills and unwavering devotion to workers and their families. He died at the age of 71 in September of 2023.