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Labor Activists:
Social Security Fight Far From Over

September 23, 2005

Social Security reform has been forced off the top of President Bush’s domestic agenda, most recently by Hurricane Katrina and vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court. But labor activists are preparing for the next battle in the administration’s effort to privatize Social Security.

“The IBEW and the rest of the labor movement remain ready to mobilize against any renewed attempt to take away Social Security, either through outright privatization schemes or back-door tax cut or pension reform legislation,” said IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill.

Despite the urging of the White House, few members of Congress returned to their home districts to host events highlighting Social Security reform over the August recess. Many Republican members have done so in the past, and were taken to task by working people, seniors and community activists questioning the wisdom of dismantling the most successful government program in American history. Yet even though there appears to be no public support for a Social Security overhaul, Congress is likely to be cooking up legislation that opens the door to privatization.

Bills introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate would finance private Social Security accounts with $2 trillion in expected “surplus” Social Security tax revenue in 12 years. But the Senate is unlikely to take up consideration of the legislation anytime soon. In the House, a prominent member of the Republican leadership argued in a closed meeting on Sept. 14 that the party should drop an effort to add private accounts to Social Security. Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-NY), chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, made the suggestion to Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Fla.), Ways and Means Committee chairman, echoing the private thoughts of other Republicans fearful of public reaction in next year’s congressional races.

One House aide told the Washington Post that Katrina fallout, high gasoline prices, anger over the war in Iraq and President Bush’s persistently low approval ratings have scared off House support for private accounts. Another said, “Why would you want to make vulnerable members take a vote on something that’s not going anywhere? You could make the case that it would be suicide.”

President Bush himself, after starting off the year labeling Social Security privatization his biggest priority and traveling across the country to sell it, barely mentions the subject anymore, leaving it off his list of upcoming challenges in a recent radio address. But even among those relieved that momentum appears to be against privatization, a sense of watchful guardedness remains. The President, in concert with a Republican House and Senate, tends to see his legislative wish list fulfilled. Before the summer break, a string of long-sought victories passed congressional muster: the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and the energy and highway bills.

“The biggest thing we have going is that Social Security works,” said a participant at an AFL-CIO Social Security strategy meeting in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 16. “Social Security has made a different for elderly people, and those on disability and survivor benefits. Do we really want to see a return of the poor farms of the 1930s?”

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