James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Saturday, October 16, 2004

We could all become Willy Lomans

By Will Shapira

In Arthur Miller’s classic play, "Death of a Salesman," aging traveling salesman Willy Loman pleads for his job with the son of the man who hired him and is about to fire him. Exasperated and fearful, Willy shouts that "Promises were made across this desk!"

To no avail. Willy is out and as his world unravels, he suffers a breakdown and commits suicides in a desperate, futile hope that his family can collect on his insurance.

The parallels between Willy Loman’s heart-breaking plight and that facing millions of American retirees is striking, disturbing and by no means exaggerated. Promises that once were made to millions of workers who helped build their companies – and this country – now are being broken. The stiff, cold, corporate rationales are:

*"We have to cut benefits to remain competitive."

*"We have to make the numbers, increase shareholder value, boost the bottom line."

And what of the many who suddenly find themselves without health care coverage and, quite possibly in an uncertain future, without pensions as well? Are they supposed to emulate Willy Loman and end their lives as sacrificial lambs on the altar of Darwinian capitalism?

Don’t think that if the current trend continues there won’t be a significant increase in the number of suicides of retirees at the end of their financial rope. My fellow Minnesota, Sinclair Lewis, wrote in 1935 with bitter irony and astounding prescience "It Can’t Happen Here." But of course it can and, in fact, it already is happening. It must be stopped. Now.

Promises that were made across the desks of American business are now being broken with increasing frequency. The media have paid only sporadic attention, but, as Willy’s sad, beleaguered wife, Linda, declares while watching her husband plunge into despair and financial ruin, "Attention must be paid."

The very lives of American retirees - whether they realize it or not – are now in peril as never before.

A recent ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) permits companies to reduce or eliminate health care benefits for retirees 65 and over if they are on Medicare, regardless of previous promises. And if companies get their way in Congress and major changes are made in the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), retirees also might lose their pensions.

It "can’t happen here?" Think again.

Retirees must face up to some other hard facts:

*Eleven years ago, 46 percent of large companies made good on promises of guaranteed health care benefits. Today, only 28 percent of large firms assist retirees with health care benefits and, over all, only 11 percent of companies do, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute.

*Those who believe Medicare will take care of them in retirement must realize that Medicare typically covers only about half of a retiree’s health care costs, so most people must purchase supplemental insurance at ever-rising costs – not an easy task for many, or perhaps most.

In perhaps a worst-case scenario, if there is wholesale cutting of retiree health care benefits and pensions, this national might well experience a social upheaval not seen since the days of the Great Depression. With the once-sacred social contract and social safety net being shredded before their eyes, retirees facing the economic abyss would have nothing to lose by demanding fundamental changes in the nation’s governmental and economic systems.

One can envision massive marches on Washington by the retirees of today and tomorrow, ala the civil rights marches of the 1960s, to confront those who refused to act on their behalf, and on corporate headquarters, as well. The foundation of capitalistic America could be shaken to the core.

However, the future for retirees is not entirely bleak. An all-volunteer organization has been formed to focus public attention on the grave problems facing retirees and to try to generate interest from the public and candidates for public office. It is called the Ad Hoc Coaliition to Restore Retirement Security.

It’s a highly diverse coalition involving about every type of retiree you can imagine in terms of
age, gender, race, national origen, geography, political affiliation, occupation and retirement activity.

The members are united in their purpose: to make business and industry keep their promises so that retirees may enjoy the fruits of their labor in their "golden" years. After all, retirees are in large part the ones who built their companies to what most of them are today: golden.

Ad Hoc Coalition members occupy the moral high ground on the issues; they are fighting for what America is supposed to be all about. They are setting an example for other retirees (and future retirees) by refusing to lie down and play dead in the face of assaults in business and government who place corporate concerns above human worth and dignity.

Those who are retired, and those who hope to retire with some degree of comfort some day, must realize that however benevolent their former employers once might have been, the days of beneficence and trust are gone forever. Retirees now must act in their own interest – indeed, for their self-preservation – by contacting their senators and Congressional representatives and urging them to promptly enact legislation ensuring that retirees will receive their hard-earned and long-promised pensions and health care benefits.

There should be no delay, interruption or revocation. Promises made must be promises kept. Promises broken mean grim futures for millions of Americans.
"Attention must be paid."

The Ad Hoc Coalition to Restore Retirement Security intends to make sure it is. Further information on the coalition can be obtained at www.restoreretirementsecurity.org.

Will Shapira is a retired public relations representative for major corporations and non-profit organizations. He once was a news reporter and writer for Minnesota's largest radio stations.