24 November 2014

This past week I was in my hometown, Lorain, and had the opportunity to visit with some old friends who are now retired, receiving Social Security/Medicare. It was certainly interesting to hear what those actually taking part in these fine programs have to say, especially in light of the push by literally all of the corporate shrills to cut Social Security/Medicare, it order to “save the economy.” These Wall Street economists have beaten this drum almost to death, telling us that “austerity is only way out, we must cut social spending or disaster awaits!” Far be it for us mere working folk to point out that Britain & every European nation that adopted this formula, cutting pensions and social programs, have sled backwards into another recession. Reality rarely has any influence on these “great men” anyway; they know so much more us!

One “solution” that these great men have proposed is to cut the CPI (“chained CPI”), the cost-of-living increases received by Social Security recipients.

Anthony ‘Red’ Zampiere is someone who’d be directly affected by this type of cut. He doesn’t feel it would be fair, just or in any way helpful to the economy. Red is now 88, a vet who braved the dangerous supply convoys in the North Atlantic during WW II, many of which suffered 80-90% casualties. Returning home Red became active in Local 1104, USW in Lorain and was a real hero to many of us “younger” workers. He worked in the mill for over 4 decades, working as a roller in the Bar Mill, raised a family and finally retired with what was a very good USW pension 20 years ago.

“Without the cost-of-living raises, I don’t know how we could’ve made it,” Red told me. “What was a good pension then isn’t that good today.”

“Social Security is the best program our government ever passed. Without it, our retirees would be in poverty,” he said. “These idiots that want to cut it don’t think about what it would do to our families or to the communities we live in. When we get our checks, we spend them; our homes, our vehicles, taking care of our families. If they cut the COLA, folks like me would just be a drag on society, instead of productive citizens!”

Red was rushing when I spoke with him, heading to the hospital to visit his beloved wife, Bonnie, now recovering from a recent stroke.

“Already, the cost for Bonnie’s care is over $300,000. How on earth could we handle that without Medicare,” Red asked. “Four years ago I fell off a ladder and was injured badly. With Medicare, I recovered and am doing well. Bonnie will also. Why is it that these guys can’t just have the rich pay their fair share,” he asked, again. “If they paid their taxes fairly, the rest of us could live good and our economy would prosper!”

After leaving Red, I ran into another dear friend, one of the “younger” retirees like me, Dennis Cataldo. Dennis had 33 years in the mill, but wasn’t old enough to draw his immediate pension when Republic Steel enticed him to retire early in 1999. He was promised that Republic would supplement his pension until he reached 55 and would provide solid health care. Soon after going out of the mill, they reneged on both promises. Shutting down for one day, Republic filed bankruptcy. The PBGC took over his pension and the promised supplements and his health care ended. His pension went from solid and livable to $700/month, no health care, and he was told that he “owed” the PBGC $36,000!

“We fell into poverty! I had to go back to work at St. Lads church. It was literally terrifying to be without health care for the first time in my adult life. The only possibility was to get COBRA, but we couldn’t afford that.”

“The union fought it and Senator Sherrod Brown really helped us. He had meetings with the PBGC, fought for us and it helped our family,” he said. Social Security was a lifesaver, Dennis said.

“When I was eligible, I immediately signed up. For us, getting Social Security was like hitting the lottery! It’s always working folks they want to take form,” he said. “I’d like to see some of those big business politicians try to live on what we had to. None of them ever had to work night shifts, work in the cold, the heat in summer, work hard like we had to. Social Security saved my family and saved a lot of people around here. Isn’t it time for the wealthy to pay, instead of getting bailed out?”

That is the question we’d all like to ask. If the national pundits would like a dose of reality, they could take a little trip to Lorain, Ohio and talk with steelworker retirees there. I think they’d leave knowing a bit more about how real people live, as well as a better idea how important Social Security/Medicare are out here in Realityville!