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American Workers Deserve Retirement Security

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Speech by Anna Burger at the Rainbow/PUSH Wall Street Project, New York City, January 11, 2006

Thank you Reverend Jackson, we can always count on you to stand with workers. You bring us together so that we can stand together and win for all of our families and our communities. You force us to take on the hard issues so that we can win together. And I thank you for your determination and commitment to the security workers and their efforts to organize. They need you. We need you.

Like many of you, I grew up in an America that valued work and workers. One in three workers was in a union, and a union job raised up whole families, whole communities, whole generations.

And each generation in America had one common legacy. They passed on to their children a better life than their own. We call that legacy the American Dream. And, when you had a union job it meant you were on the road to the American Dream.

But that dream is flickering. Working in America is very different today from when I got my first job.

America's greatness was that everyone who "worked hard and played by the rules," had a chance to own a home, raise a family, send their kid to college, and retire with dignity.

But the rules today are stacked against American workers.

The truth is we DO work hard. We drive trucks and buses and trains, we serve food, clean hotels and office building, mine coal, pick apples, build houses, pour concrete, stock shelves, teach our kids, care for the sick, the elderly and the vulnerable and provide the infrastructure to our society.

We do work hard and American workers DO play by the rules. But the rules no longer work. Wages are down, and work hours are up. The gap between the rich and rest of America--- it's staggering and growing. Health care costs are exploding. Pensions are being wiped out. Job security is a thing of the past. Part-time employment is on the rise. Giant corporations who salute no flag but their own corporate logo and worship no god, but the almighty dollar roam the globe in search of the lowest wages.

The result is families now face the impossible challenge of getting their children to school in between their two or three jobs. Choosing between bus fare and breakfast, health care or housing, between taking care of their mother or their father or their children.

Sisters and brothers this is NOT the American Dream.

It is an American Nightmare!

The sad truth is that every single day of my life the labor movement has gotten smaller and weaker. Today, only 1 in 12 workers is in a union. And the lack of our strength has resulted in an attack on all workers. The current attacks on retirement security make clear just how great the costs of the labor movement weakness can be.

From Social Security in the 1930s, to employer-paid pensions in the 1940s and '50s, a strong labor movement pulled American workers step-by-step closer to the dream of a secure and dignified retirement. A strong labor movement made this dream a reality for workers; even if they weren't financial geniuses, even if the stock market tanked, and even if their bosses turned out to be crooks.

But as the labor movement has weakened and shrunk, the pension system created half a century ago is breaking down under the strain of global competition, market volatility, not to mention corporate fraud and conflicts of interest on Wall Street.

As a result, retirement security is slipping away for millions of American workers. Today, less than half of all American workers receive any kind of retirement benefit, and less than a quarter are covered by a defined benefit plan. That means that half don't have any retirement benefit at all, three quarters of those who do only have a 401(k) plan, and therefore no protection against the volatility of the market, and no guarantee they won't outlive their savings.

But even those fortunate workers with a defined benefit plan have reason to worry, as new risks have emerged: Global competition, rapid technological change, and the unwinding of a huge stock market bubble have left numerous company pension plans at risk.

We've seen it first-hand as one American industry after another - first steel, then the airlines, now auto parts - has found itself in crisis as a result of either globalization or mismanagement, or both. More and more companies have sought Chapter 11 protection and dumped their pension plans.

Other companies, such as IBM, Hewlett Packard, Aon, and Motorola, have either frozen defined benefit plans or closed them to new workers. Without a strong labor movement on the horizon, these companies no longer believe that they need to provide genuine retirement security to their workers. They are willing to leave them out in the cold.

What about the public sector? In state and local governments, more workers have a union: 37% compared to 8% in the private sector, and more workers have the promise of a secure retirement: 90% of public employees have a defined benefit pension. But even here retirement security is under threat.

Governor Schwarzenegger tried last year to eliminate defined benefit pensions for new California public employees; and you all lived through the battle in New York as the City's MTA recently tried to cut pension benefits for new hires.

But in New York and California strong unions fought back and stopped both efforts. And they did it not just for the new hires or for their existing members, they stood up for all of us.

But around the country, where unions are not as strong as they are in New York and California, public service workers are seeing pensions replaced by 401(k) plans. It's already happened for new workers in Michigan, Oregon, and Alaska. And it's on the way in Colorado, Illinois, Kansas and many others they're heading in that direction.

The bottom line is that millions of Americans working today will retire in poverty - if they are able to retire at all.

Sisters and Brothers, if we believe that American workers should be able to retire with dignity we need to build a new system of retirement security, and we need to build a new labor movement to fight for and win it.

Workers across America are counting on us. Workers like James Barnes, a security worker guarding a billion dollar office building right here in NYC. James earns $10/hr, no health care and no pension. No training or job security. Recently James had to take on a second job, a paper route, to make ends met. James along with the 60,000 other security guards, mostly African-American men have turned to SEIU Local 32BJ just as hundreds of thousands of security guards in big cities across America and around the globe are joining in SEIU's global security campaign. It's their hope to create the American dream for themselves, their families and their communities.

It's for workers like Hortencia Lemus, who's worked for Angelica Textile Services for 30 years and has no pension. That's why she's turned to UNITE HERE as part of their national campaign to bring the American Dream to those workers.

That's why last September, seven unions representing six million workers formed a new labor federation called Change to Win.

We formed this new federation because we believe that while the world has changed dramatically, the labor movement needs to change with it.

Our employers and our economy are global. Corporations are larger and more concentrated in their power, wealth and reach. And the world of work has changed dramatically, so that our children can expect to hold 10 or more jobs in their lifetimes.

Our unions will rise to meet these challenges by focusing our resources on organizing the tens of millions of workers who don't have a union.

We are streamlining and integrating the operations of our seven unions.

We are operating globally, and developing global alliances based on common employers with unions around the world.

We are developing new organizing strategies and new forms of representation suited to the new world of work.

And as we build a stronger labor movement, we will fight to reestablish retirement security for all Americans.

While we need to defend defined benefit plans where they still exist, we need to develop new ideas and strategies that will enable us to extend genuine retirement security to the millions of Americans who don't have defined benefit plans. And we need to build a system that is adapted to a world of rapid change, increased risk, and rising instability.

In other words, we need to think outside the box.

We don't know the exact details of this new retirement security system, but we know the basic principles that it should meet:

1. First, it should cover everybody who works.

2. It should provide an adequate income for retirement - such as 70% of pre-retirement income -- and this income must be guaranteed against market fluctuations, inflation, and increased life expectancy.

3. It should require all employers to contribute to their workers retirement, but it should also ensure that those contributions are predictable and stable.

4. It should be simple - easy to understand and to communicate.

5. It should be portable from the first day of work, and follow the worker from one employer to the next.

6. It should pool investments to minimize administrative costs, ensure diversification, reduce risk for individual participants and increase returns through professional asset management.

7. Finally, the governance of this new system should be transparent and accountable to the participants. Participants, or their representatives, should have the right to elect fiduciaries who decide on benefit, administrative, and investment policies, select service providers and monitor investment performance.

Sisters and Brothers, a better retirement system won't be easy to create or to extend to all Americans. But we're not afraid of hard work, and we won't back down from a challenge.

We know that if we are willing to change, willing to work, and willing to fight, we can build a labor movement strong enough to bring an end to the American Nightmare, and reestablish the American Dream.

Sisters and Brothers millions of American workers are counting on us. Sisters and brothers our parents gave us a better life and our parents turned over to us a stronger labor movement. It is our responsibility, our obligation our duty to rebuild our movement and rebuild the American Dream. We owe it to the next generation.

Let's do it.

Thank you.

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