Monday, October 02, 2006

Wanted: A National Pension Plan For Working People

Several years ago I was a telemarketer in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn for a wholesale ophthalmic lens company. We sold lenses to small independent mom and pop stores you might purchase a pair of glasses from and our profit margin was thin.

My co-workers were predominantly uneducated and older than forty. Several of my colleagues labored for years on their feet as “lens pickers” with little compensation. Trust me it’s far more grueling then it sounds. Sometimes during a busy crunch I helped out on the lens floor and was exhausted after a couple hours. Typically, the lens pickers toiled from 7:00AM to 7:00PM when we packed up at night for messenger pick up.

Most earned hourly salaries not far above minimum wage. As with any small business working in close quarters facilitates bonding and reduces barriers. It was also in my own self-interest to maintain a positive relationship with co-workers because I wanted my customers taken care of.

So I listened and talked with them about everything and anything: our personal lives, sports and television. We had our unique inside jokes and off color humor. We played practical jokes on each other. Several of them enjoyed giving me dating advice. We also discussed politics.

Culturally, I found them to be conservative, very religious and proudly patriotic. Politically most didn’t vote at all and the few that did typically pulled the lever for Republicans. All resented politicians who talked a good game but didn’t do anything for “working people.” They found my passion and interest in politics quirky and strange.

It’s largely because of them I ponder the subject of pension reform for employees of small businesses. How many Americans are just like my former colleagues in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn: working hard for little pay with no union to stand up for them, limited prospects for the future, virtually nothing saved for retirement and no light at the end of the tunnel?

One colleague I often think about is over sixty and has bad knees. I recently learned he suffered a heart attack. What will he do once he is physically unable to perform his job anymore? He can’t afford to retire and conservative lectures about a high skill economy don’t do him any good. No doubt the insipid David Brooks would write he should’ve just learned computer programming and networked more efficiently with people.

How many workers are younger than my former colleague but on the same downward spiral, existing in an economy that for them is all risk and little reward? What can and should be done for them?

It seems to me the federal government must underwrite a pension plan for small businesses as a supplement to Social Security. Workers such as my former colleagues are living paycheck to paycheck with no savings or wealth being generated on their behalf.

Is it possible to design a policy that enables small businesses to establish 401k style pensions for unskilled laborers such as my former colleagues in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn? Might it also be possible that such a plan allows employers to match any contributions made by employees – encouraging savings and facilitating long-term wealth generation?

My current job has a 401K plan but I work for a small firm and employee contributions are not matched. Matching contributions is how true wealth can be created. My former colleagues in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn don’t even have a 401K plan without matching contributions.

Some interesting work has been done on the subject. In June I interviewed progressive economist Jared Bernstein and asked him about this topic. He referred me to the work of Ray Boshara of The New American Foundation as well as the Hamilton Project.

Last night Kid Oakland turned my attention to an interesting piece published in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell when I exchanged comments with him about his fine diary in Daily Kos on good government.

All helpful reading yet I still believe this topic is not being sufficiently deliberated and considered. This issue is a potential silver bullet in 2008 along with health care. If I were a prospective presidential candidate I would definitely reach out to minds such as Jared Bernstein and Gene Sperling and ask them to crunch some numbers about how this can practically be done.

Naturally we can expect a conservative screech about proposing something so ambitious requiring heavy government funding. Nonetheless I believe it can be sold as an investment that will deliver a bountiful return by boosting an eroding middle class.

There is also considerable benefit for the small business community. Indeed for them it’s a competitiveness issue. If even their low skilled and wage employees are given a stake of wealth generation in their success it ultimately enhances productivity and preserves continuity in their workforce. Isn’t it better to underwrite pension plans on behalf of small businesses employing American workers instead of providing corporate welfare for multinationals outsourcing jobs?

I realize our focus is on the remaining five weeks of this election season. However, it is not too early to wrap our brains around issues and policies that can be championed in 2008 and lift up the middle class. Christian E. Weller from the Center of American Progress and Eli Staub, research analyst from the Service Employees International Union recently collaborated on a must read piece entitled, Middle Class In Turmoil that illustrates the stakes for working people. This is a constituency that needs to be engaged with concrete proposals if we expect their votes and deserves some kind of reward for playing by the rules.

I’m curious to hear from the vast brain-power of the netroots community. We truly have become an idea factory and I believe the political class has learned to pay attention to what we think. Let’s put our policy wonk caps on and make a difference. We might even earn the trust, gratitude and votes of working people such as my former colleagues from Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn.

2 comments:

terryhallinan said...

Several of my colleagues labored for years on their feet as “lens pickers” with little compensation. Trust me it’s far more grueling then it sounds.

I suppose though the hours sound particularly harsh.

I paid my way through college mostly with work on construction. The union pay was sufficiently high at the time on "highball" work that even working only maybe 6 or 7 weeks at unskilled jobs through the Laborer's Union was enough for a year of college.

In the meantime, fruit pickers in the same area of nothern California were making far less than any imaginable minimum wage.

It took some weeks to get a call for a job after the usual struggle to even get a union card. During that time I went out to a peach orchard with a family. Working as fast as I might for the first hour, I made (I kid you not) about 25 cents by my calculations.

I don't pretend that I was anything but inept at the task.

With the above remuneration in mind, I slacked off more than a little. After that I spent about as much time eating peaches as picking them.

About noon, a supervisor yelled up to me that I had to finish the tree before going home. I yelled back that I wasn't that hungry.

I later offered to pay what I could to the family with two small children all picking peaches to take me home. The peaches were beginning to have their customary effect. Meanwhile the little girls - one was maybe kindergarten age and the other perhaps a year or two older - were taking some punishment for not picking fast enough. I could not possibly have survived such a childhood.

I suggest to you, my friend, that there is an intrinsic problem with rewarding the aged - as I am now - for the supposed worth of their contributions rather than their need. It is a problem with Social Security writ large that liberals refuse to address, beholden yet to a ponzi scheme foisted on workers - especially lower-paid workers - that has done more to widen the chasm between rich and poor than all the fine efforts of a Bill Clinton or George Bush and their ilk.

Society should recognize the need to support those who cannot support themselves. Calling on only workers to do so while using the imaginary savings for all manner of expenses is an obscenity.

I am very appreciative of your suggestion but suggest the patch to a wrong-headed system is insufficient to even begin to correct the evils.

Social Security has done wonders for the aged. It hasn't done quite as well for fruit pickers or even union construction workers - who are not doing as well these days I would guess.

All just my opinion.

Best, Terry

Anonymous said...

Great photo...now I know what happened to Gabe Kaplan!