Stand up for your rights

The Labor Day holiday provides the perfect opportunity to take stock in the status of the American worker and the labor movement. Is today’s workforce better or worse off than in years past? What does the future hold in relation to benefits for workers? What role have labor unions played? Are unions even necessary today?

For more than 100 years, the American labor movement has fought for and won the rights that workers, union and non-union alike, have taken for granted. The 40-hour work week, overtime pay, the minimum wage, employer-paid health care and Social Security are just a few of the rights we all enjoy because of the blood and sweat spilled by generations of hard-working American union members.

But, sadly, the legacy they left us is disappearing at an ever-increasing rate. Your rights as a worker in this country are purposely and systematically being taken from you, usually without your knowledge. The latest victim in the crosshairs of corporate America is your pension plan.

To 44 million American workers, the defined-benefit pension plan is a promise of a retirement with dignity after a lifetime of service. Under these plans, retired workers receive a set amount, usually determined by the number of years the worker was employed with the company, for the rest of their lives. Only these real pensions guarantee workers they would not run out of money as they got older. But that is changing at an alarming rate. In 2004, 71 of the nation’s 1,000 largest companies froze or ended their pension plans, up from 45 in 2003. The corporate message is: you are on your own if you run out of money—too bad!!

United Airlines, the world’s second-largest airline, dumped their pension obligations to 122,000 current and retired employees in bankruptcy court. Verizon Communications froze its pension plan for more than 50,000 employees, meaning they can retire with benefits already earned but do not earn any new pension benefits. But while workers lost their pensions the CEOs continued to fly high. United CEO Glenn Tilton received $4.5 million in one year while cutting worker pensions and Verizon CEO Ivan Sridenberg got a cool $19 million. Wall Street calls these moves competitive. The rest of us call them broken promises for workers and greed for CEOs.

This trend of corporations balancing their bottom lines at the expense of their workers, futures didn’t happen overnight. Many corporate pension plans have been under-funded for some time. Some of that under-funding was caused by a poorly-performing stock market, but much of it lies with the fact that many companies just didn’t put enough money into their pension plans during the 1990s.

After years of inactivity, Congress, (who gave themselves a generous defined-benefit pension plan), has recently passed the Pension Protection Act of 2006, legislation designed to force corporations to come current with their funding at an accelerated rate. But, as many experts fear, this legislation will actually encourage more companies to discontinue their pension programs and move toward employee-paid 401(k) plans. By doing so, corporations will not only shift the burden of retirement security onto workers through programs that are less stable and earn far less, but they also leave the responsibility of bailing out their bankrupt pension funds to taxpayers.

In a nutshell: CEOs line their pockets, you lose your pension, and then you get the tax bill to bail out the corporation’s broken promise to you. Angry yet?? Well, this is just a single issue in the litany of attacks on your rights as a worker by the corporate interests that are currently setting the agenda in Washington. Social Security, overtime pay, health care to them, they’re all up for grabs. Angrier? Then it’s time to stand up for your rights. Make your voice heard. The labor movement has been at the forefront of the battle on all of these issues for some time. Unions have fought and will continue fighting for the rights of all workers, but the real question is, are workers willing to stand up and fight for their own future? If you are, then I, and millions of union members across America, invite you to join us this Labor Day, in the continuing fight for workers’ rights, your rights.

From the Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2006, issue

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