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Screwing Working People

by JODI DEAN

A friend of mine dropped out of high school in the mid-70s. She went to work cleaning at a college in her town. She worked at this college for about 30 years.

Apparently, she didn’t work for the college, though. She worked for three or four (it’s hard to tell) different companies, companies contracted to do the cleaning.

Now she is ready to get her pension. She went to human resources at the college. But they said she didn’t work for them. They sent her to the company currently responsible for housekeeping. That company sent her to the company that manages the union’s pension fund.

The union told her to fill out a form. It seemed to her like they wanted her to say that she worked at the college for fourteen years. That’s all they had on record. Apparently, at some point in time the union’s pension fund was in trouble so it merged into another pension fund. All the records from the early time were transferred to the new fund managers.

The new fund managers seem to be saying that they have records for my friend’s years of work and that they don’t have records for her years of work. They also seem to be saying that she needs to go to the Social Security office to get a bunch of detailed records of her hours. This will cost $47.50. It’s hard to know why this is necessary if they already have records of her work. But maybe they don’t.

Meanwhile, the office managing the fund changed addresses on August 1.

I can’t quite get why they were telling my friend that she had to go get all these records. And this is after having spoken this morning to four people at three offices (college, current company, and union fund) two or three times each.

After two hours, though, something else emerged. It now seems like there was no pension fund until 1991. That is, it appears like the local only established a pension fund for the workers in 1991. And it also looks like the employer’s contribution during that period was only five cents an hour.

It’s strange that no one mentioned this to my friend when she was first attempting to get her pension. It is also strange that it took so many phone calls to establish this. Is it even true? That’s not what my friend remembers. She remembers a union being there from the beginning, but it’s been a long time and this stuff is complicated and confusing.

On the surface, my friend’s experience is that of working in the same place, in the same union, in the same buildings, for nearly 30 years. Below the surface: three (or four) companies, only one of which currently exists and two (or three) pension funds, only one of which currently exists.

Because of capital, her world is not what it seems. Her basic experience of work (which also sucks) is fundamentally different from capital’s managing of her remuneration for her work. The effect is that she worked for 30 years and her pension will only cover 14 years. And, it isn’t clear why: no union contract? a mismanaged pension fund? a loss of records as ownership changed?

The complications benefit capital and screw her. She’s being exploited through the mechanisms of a process that was supposed to provide her with a benefit. She doesn’t understand a lot of it (and neither do I). But she gets the basic point: “they expect me to die so that they won’t have to give me my money.”

But this story is incomplete because I’ve left out or underplayed another key aspect of the situation–how the people who work in offices treat my friend. She’s in her sixties, black, and without a high school degree. When she got to my house this morning, she understood the primary issue to be that she needed to get information from social security that would tell the pension fund people how long she had worked for the college (which, technically, was zero years since she was employed by a private contractor). Her concern was with filling out a form properly and needing some white-out to fix some information that was misrepresented.

When I made the phone calls, people talked to me, answered my questions, tranferred me to others higher on the food chain, and began doing the research on the employers and union contracts. I’m a 50 year old white woman, a full professor with a Ph.D. I found it all extraordinarily difficult to understand and only began getting things sorted by asking a lot of questions. The bureaucrats only divulged information when asked and spoke as if all of their terms were clear and obvious. They were brusk and confident, off-putting if you aren’t privileged enough or socialized to question and push back. After I hung up from the last call, my friend looked at my across the table, shaking her head in a combination of disgust, fury, and resignation, “they wouldn’t tell me none of that.”

As it looks right now, she will get $70.70 a month. She worked as a cleaner for thirty years.

Jodi Dean is a Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY. Her most recent book is The Communist Horizon, coming out next month from Verso.

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