The future of worker pensions is in jeopardy.

After hours of walking on a hot and humid city street, recently, two Spectrum strikers took time from the picket line to answer a question: What’s at issue with the strike?

With a sore back and a parched mouth, Rakim Smith, a cable technician and member of Local 3, IBEW, said, “It’s another way to circumvent peoples’ collective bargaining rights. It’s wrong.” His fellow striker, Ayobam Ouedapo, agreed, saying, “It’s union busting—101—definitely.”

Spectrum has it all, according to their new, expensive TV ad campaign—a big advertising budget; a huge payout for their CEO; a new name—Time Warner Cable is now Spectrum; and new ownership. But not, apparently, pensions for its employees. Spectrum strikers have been out now for four-and-a-half-months, fighting to preserve their wages, working conditions, and benefits. Prominent in the struggle, is a company proposal to switch employees to a 401 (k) plan.

Con Edison took this route back in 2012. The company locked out the membership of Local 1-2, Utility Workers of America, on June 30 of that year. Three weeks later, the pension for all new hires was gone, as of July 1, and in its place was a 401 (k) system for the new employees, along with an increase in contributions toward their medical insurance. Con Edison workers understood the deal. A clerical worker with 35 years of service, chalked up the company’s bargaining position to greed. “The 401 (k) depends on stocks and bonds. Why should we work all our lives and then lose our money on Wall Street? It’s the big guy trying to squish the little guy,” she said. Another Local 1-2 member, an inspector, put the new agreement into some historical perspective. “Employers are trying to take things back to the days when there were no unions,” he said.

In addition to the theft of pensions by underfunding and other strategies, which began back in the 1970s with the Steelworkers, the unrelenting war on workers has included an ever escalating growth in income inequality. Les Leopold, the economist and author of Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice, puts the actual wage gap between today’s CEO and the average unskilled worker, at an astounding 829 to 1. Meanwhile, wages have been stagnating since the 1970s. Reporting on the latest economic data, the U.S. Department of Labor on Friday, August 4, noted that wage growth is the missing ingredient in the recovery, and “has remained tepid,” down by 0.3 percent last month, from a year ago.

Experts have been calling attention to the looming, multidimensional crisis in pensions for decades. Teresa Ghilarducci, noted pension scholar, and author of When I’m 64: The Plot Against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them, provides us with a roadmap, and points to the dangers of the 401(k) retirement system. “Americans lost over $1 trillion in their 401(k)s in 2008. This is evidence that America needs to radically alter how workers save,” she wrote. One proposal is to eliminate the tax breaks for 401(k)s and replace them with guaranteed retirement accounts, among other sensible proposals. Note, however, that last week, the Trump administration, through the Treasury Department, ended Obama-era Retirement Savings Plans for low-income workers.

“Unions are an essential way to help reduce economic inequality,” said Fordham University Professor Chris Rhomberg, author of The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor. “The Spectrum workers are at the forefront of a battle to defend good jobs across the economy, including the right to bargain collectively,” he said. Rhomberg pointed out that “The company is benefitting from its franchise agreement with the city, and it should negotiate fairly with its workers.” This is a fundamental crisis that we ignore at our peril.


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