Our looming labor crisis: retirement security
Courier Post Opinion Editorial.
By Donald Norcross
Labor Day is a time to celebrate America’s workers, and, this year, while we do that, we should also look at the realities facing our country’s hardworking men and women.
While corporate bosses have been getting big raises and bigger bonuses for decades, wages for workers have been stagnant. This coincides with the loss of a voice in the workplace as union membership has declined. For some in the top 1 percent, these may seem like small concerns, but I know firsthand that they are huge problems for rank-and-file workers. I was an electrician for decades and eventually became a business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 351, as well as president of the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO.
I’ve worked with and on behalf of thousands of New Jersey’s workers for over 30 years, and I know that unions empower workers to raise their voices and raise wages. Throughout the past century, unions have led the way in securing benefits for all workers, like the five-day work week and health and safety standards on the job. In the process, they expanded health care and retirement options for millions of Americans and shaped the middle class as we know it.
Now, as our middle class declines, one of the most pressing long-term issues facing Americans is the looming retirement security crisis.
Experts say most people will have little more than Social Security to live on and will be worse off than their parents and grandparents. Around 15 million Americans between the ages of 55 and 70 – or 40% of baby boomers – lack sufficient resources to maintain their living standard in retirement, according to the Wall Street Journal, and nearly half of Americans nearing retirement age have less than $25,000 in savings, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Making matters worse, the percentage of 55-plus families with debt has risen steadily for more than two decades.
What does that mean? In the next 15 years, “senior poverty” could be the new normal.
Both public- and private-sector pensions are at also risk. During the 2008 financial crisis, state and local pension plans lost around $35 billion in assets, according to the Pew Foundation. And private-sector pensions could become insolvent over the next 20 years. Congress is beginning to take notice, and this year I was appointed to the Joint Select Committee on Multiemployer Pensions, a bipartisan, 16-person group of Senate and House members charged with finding ways to keep those multiemployer pension plans afloat.
But our country’s retirement troubles don’t end there. Each generation is saving less and less. My generation saved less than our parents, and Generation X is falling farther behind us. Over two-thirds of our youngest workers – millennials between the ages of 24 and 38 – have absolutely nothing saved for retirement. Plus, changing demographics and family constructs in America reveal glaring gulfs as well. During retirement years, single women and minority communities are particularly at risk of falling into poverty.
Yet the party in control of the White House, House of Representatives and Senate is not addressing these very real problems. In fact, in many ways, Republicans are making things worse. They’re exacerbating rising inequality with their tax scam that benefits billionaires and hurts New Jersey families. And they’re silencing workers’ voices by crippling collective bargaining. That’s why I helped introduce the Workers’ Freedom to Negotiate Act, which strengthens unions, instead of undermining them. It will ensure workers have a voice in their workplace so they can earn higher, living wages and enjoy the secure retirement they deserve.
In the early 20th century, our country came together and created the social safety net programs we have today, and our leaders recognized the value of workplace organizing. We have built up a society where children have grown up hearing about how they can retire and enjoy their “golden years” – with travel, family and fun after a lifetime of hard work. Today, that aspect of the American Dream seems to be dying.
Workers who sacrificed and deferred wages in order to retire with dignity entered into a sacred trust that we must not break. After the financial collapse, Congress acted to take care of Wall Street. We can and must take action now to ensure that everyday Americans aren’t left out in the cold.
This Labor Day, as you hear candidates talk about what matters most for America’s workers, I encourage you to ask them about retirement security and pensions. I encourage you to ask them about their stance on recent attacks on collective bargaining. And ask them how they’re supporting unions, the heartbeat of our workforce.
The only way we’ll solve the retirement crisis is by facing it together, so let’s elect the best people who will help us take care of our current and retiring workers and raise up our future workforce.