FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Pensions Under Attack

by MARK VORPAHL

On Friday, July 6, President Obama signed into law a bill that would renew transportation programs and extend low interest rates on student loans for one year. While this minimal gesture resulted in, no doubt, sighs of relief from those burdened by student debt, tucked away within the bill’s pages was a little-noticed proposal to further erode the funding of workers’ pensions. The bill was a brilliant sleight of hand where what it appeared to be giving with one hand distracted the public from what it was taking away with the other.

Aside from the more publicly known parts of this bill, it also reduced the amount that corporations pay into an already grossly underfunded pension system. The way it achieved this is with a complex equation factoring in interest rates, changes in how businesses calculate what they must contribute to retirement premiums, and how these contributions are tax deductible. The end result of this opaque process of number crunching is that, according to the Society of Actuaries, employer pension contributions will be reduced overall from a mandatory $80 billion to $45 billion this year alone. Next year this amount will be slashed by $73 billion. (1)

While the amount of company pension contributions would increase afterwards, there is no guarantee that this can be counted on to make up for the short-term cuts. Without a fundamental change in the political climate, it can be assumed that this distant increase will be reversed.

Some have said that these employer pension payment deductions will not amount to much given the $1.9 trillion employers have already invested into these plans over the decades. Yet the political importance of this bill cannot be calculated by arithmetic alone. It is another example of a pattern of how politicians have enabled corporations to minimize their responsibility towards their employees’ pensions to the point where the entire system is in danger and the dream of a comfortable retirement is approaching collapse.

How far has the pension system fallen into disrepair? According to The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), the quasi-government agency responsible for retirement funds, the public employees pension was being funded at 103 percent in 1999. The pension funds for the private sector were likewise robust.

By 2008, according to the Pew Center, the public sector pensions were short $452 billion. By 2009 the PBGC reported a funding shortfall of $355 billion and a shortfall of $407 billion for “single employer pensions.”

Why this dramatic change? The corporations, their politicians, and media lay the blame on growing pension costs (though many have been frozen) and an increased number of workers retiring. This is turning the reasons behind the pension system’s shortfall on its head. Fundamentally, the reason for the growing threats to retirement is corporate greed, backed up by their political power, as well as the effects of the economic crisis.

There are numerous examples of how big business and their two parties, the Democrats and Republicans, have colluded to erode their legal responsibility to fund pensions. The Pension Protection Act of 2006 enabled pension funds to partner with high-risk speculators, resulting in massive loses to the system in 2008-2010. Corporations have been allowed to declare phony bankruptcies in order to dump their pensions on the PBGC. They are also allowed to divert funds that should go into pension funds towards covering health care costs as well as buying back company stocks and making dividend payouts to stockholders. The list could go on for the ways the political system lets the corporations off the hook at the cost of threatening workers’ retirement. The effect of these measures is to starve the pension system in order to fatten corporate profits.

In addition, the Great Recession has also had a debilitating effect on pension funding. A jobless recovery means fewer workers able to contribute. If corporations were adequately taxed on the trillions they are hoarding to finance a real jobs program, this would not be a problem. Instead, the corporations and their politicians are pursuing the opposite course. They are using the bad economy to justify making the problem worse by cutting away at company obligations to their workers and their pensions.

The provision of the bill Obama signed into law on July 6th regarding pension funding demonstrates the bipartisan priorities geared towards benefiting corporations at the expense of workers. The public justification for this scheme is that the economy is bad and it wouldn’t help workers if these companies went broke as a result of trying to cover the pension shortfalls.

This is a variation of the same line of argument used to justify all austerity measures. Playing on the assumption of common cause between the economic elite and workers, corporations plead poverty and sermonize on the need for “shared sacrifice.” The truth, however, is that big business isn’t broke. There is plenty of money to assure a comfortable retirement for all workers, not to mention universal health care, social security, and full employment. The problem isn’t fiscal, it’s political. The corporations do not want to pay their fair share, and they own the political system.

Solutions to the pension crisis will not be found within the Democratic or Republican Parties. It will take the force of an independent social movement to make the rich pay. Such a social movement could start with the demands of “Jobs – Not Cuts” “Tax the Rich.” From this starting point, it could mature to take on other issues that unite workers such as a solution to the pension crisis.

What kind of solution could be proposed? A demand that a mass movement can get behind. In order for this to happen the demand would have to solve the crisis, be easily understood to inspire, and make a clear demarcation between the interests of the 99% and 1%. To do this a social movement around the pension crisis should call on the federal government to takeover pensions with a heavy tax on corporations that would ensure that they are fully funded and fine those who have willfully failed to properly pay into their pension funds. Then we could demand that Social Security be strengthened so that it could gradually replace the precarious pensions offered in both the public and private sectors. But demands around pensions should be linked to the more immediately pressing demand for most workers, namely a massive jobs creation program. In this way working people will be united and in a position to mount a massive campaign.

Mark Vorpahl is an union steward, social justice activist, and writer for Workers’ Action – www.workerscompass.org. He can be reached at Portland@workerscompass.org.

Notes.

(1) “New law gives US companies a break on pensions” by Alan Fram.http://www.dailytribune.com/article/20120709/FINANCE01/120709544/new-law-gives-us-companies-a-break-on-pensions

 

Mark Vorpahl is a union steward, social justice activist and a writer for Workers Action and Occupy.com. He can be reached at Portland@workerscompass.org.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 09, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nasty As They Wanna Be
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Second Gilded Age: Overcoming the Rule of Billionaires and Militarists
Andrew Levine
Trump’s Chumps: Victims of the Old Bait and Switch
Chris Welzenbach
The Forgotten Sneak Attack
Lewis Lapham
Hostile Takeover
Joshua Frank
This Week at CounterPunch: More Hollow Smears and Baseless Accusations
Paul Street
The Democrats Do Their Job, Again
Vijay Prashad
The Cuban Revolution: Defying Imperialism From Its Backyard
Michael Hudson - Sharmini Peries
Orwellian Economics
Mark Ames
The Anonymous Blacklist Promoted by the Washington Post Has Apparent Ties to Ukrainian Fascism and CIA Spying
Erin McCarley
American Nazis and the Fight for US History
Yoav Litvin
Resist or Conform: Lessons in Fortitude and Weakness From the Israeli Left
Conn Hallinan
India & Pakistan: the Unthinkable
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Nativism on the Left – A Realer Smith
Joshua Sperber
Trump in the Age of Identity Politics
Brandy Baker
Jill Stein Sees Russia From Her House
Katheryne Schulz
Report from Santiago de Cuba: Celebrating Fidel’s Rebellious Life
Nelson Valdes
Fidel and the Good People
Norman Solomon
McCarthy’s Smiling Ghost: Democrats Point the Finger at Russia
Renee Parsons
The Snowflake Nation and Trump on Immigration
Margaret Kimberley
Black Fear of Trump
Michael J. Sainato
A Pruitt Running Through It: Trump Kills Nearly Useless EPA With Nomination of Oil Industry Hack
Ron Jacobs
Surviving Hate and Death—The AIDS Crisis in 1980s USA
David Swanson
Virginia’s Constitution Needs Improving
Louis Proyect
Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness
Paul Atwood
War Has Been, is, and Will be the American Way of Life…Unless?
John Wight
Syria and the Bodyguard of Lies
Richard Hardigan
Anti-Semitism Awareness Act: Senate Bill Criminalizes Criticism of Israel
Kathy Kelly
See How We Live
David Macaray
Trump Picks his Secretary of Labor. Ho-Hum.
Howard Lisnoff
Interview with a Political Organizer
Yves Engler
BDS and Anti-Semitism
Adam Parsons
Home Truths About the Climate Emergency
Brian Cloughley
The Decline and Fall of Britain
Eamonn Fingleton
U.S. China Policy: Is Obama Schizoid?
Graham Peebles
Worldwide Air Pollution is Making us Ill
Joseph Natoli
Fake News is Subjective?
Andre Vltchek
Tough-Talking Philippine President Duterte
Binoy Kampmark
Total Surveillance: Snooping in the United Kingdom
Guillermo R. Gil
Vivirse la película: Willful Opposition to the Fiscal Control Board in Puerto Rico
Patrick Bond
South Africa’s Junk Credit Rating was Avoided, But at the Cost of Junk Analysis
Clancy Sigal
Investigate the Protesters! A Trial Balloon Filled With Poison Gas
Pierre Labossiere – Margaret Prescod
Human Rights and Alternative Media Delegation Report on Haiti’s Elections
Charles R. Larson
Review:  Helon Habila’s The Chibok Girls: the Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria
David Yearsley
Brahms and the Tears of Britain’s Oppressed
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail