Fight to protect Social Security, Medicare at the forefront of pensioners’ 45th PCPA Convention

The ILWU’s Pacific Coast Pensioners have been organizing to fight the attempts to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for many years. They have been sounding the alarm, organizing demonstrations, and lobbying politicians in Washington to preserve the right of working men and women to retire with dignity after a lifetime of labor.

Protecting these important retirement benefits for all workers was a major theme at the 45th Pacific Coast Pensioners Association (PCPA) Convention that was held in San Pedro, CA on September 10-12. The threats to Social Security and Medicare are real, regardless of the outcome of the November elections. These programs will be particularly vulnerable during the “lame duck” session of Congress—the period between the November election and the time the successors take office in the New Year. This is because of the compromise deficit reduction agreement reached in 2011 that will take effect next year. In addition to eliminating the Bush-era tax cuts on the wealthy, the budget agreement would also trigger deep, automatic spending cuts in 2013 to over 1,000 essential

Federal programs unless a new compromise can be reached.

Both parties targeting retirement benefits

This year’s featured speaker was Dean Baker, an economist, author and co-founder of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research. Baker talked about the very real threats posed to Social Security and Medicare regardless of who is elected in November.

“The Republicans want to replace Medicare with a voucher program. They’ll give you a check every year to buy whatever health care you want. That will not be enough to buy what we know today as Medicare,” Baker said, and seniors would have to make up the difference out of their pockets or see a reduction in benefits. He cited the past failures to introduce “free market” mechanisms into the Medicare program, most recently in the “Medicare+Choice” program in the 1990s, saying it failed because it was too expensive. “The administrative costs [in the private insurance market] are 15-20% of what is paid out in benefits each year. For Medicare it is 1.5 to 2%. How many times are we going to keep doing the experiment? It doesn’t work.”

Even if President Obama wins re-election, Medicare and Social Security are at risk, Baker said. He cited Obama’s willingness to put Social Security and Medicare cuts on the table in 2011 in the attempt to reach a “grand bargain” with Republicans to reduce the deficit. Baker said the most likely way that politicians in Washington will cut Social Security benefits will be by changing the cost of living adjustment formula.

“The formula they want to use,” Baker said, “would cut benefits by .3% for seniors per year. That doesn’t sound like a lot of money but the point is it is cumulative. After 10 years that’s a 3% reduction in your Social Security benefits. After 20 years it’s a 6% reduction. That’s a lot of money to seniors who are just scraping by. Lawmakers won’t talk about cutting—instead they will say they are tweaking the cost of living adjustment. When they say that—they are talking about cutting. That’s real money out of people’s pockets.”

He also noted that the cost of living for seniors increased at a greater rate than the rest of the population because they spend a greater portion of their budget on health care which has a very high rate of inflation. They would face cuts to their income, while their cost of living continues to increase.

Protecting Social Security and Medicare was also addressed by Gary Passmore of the California Congress of Seniors and Tom Rankin of the California Alliance for Retired Americans—activist groups that have been at the forefront of the political battle to protect retirement benefits of retired Americans. Mike Marino, President of the Vancouver Pensioners, gave a report on Canada’s health care system. He noted that virtually everyone in Canada is covered by that nation’s Medicare program, yet patient costs are far below what they are in the U.S. He warned that the same forces attempting to privatize Medicare in the U.S. are also at work in Canada, but said Canadians will furiously fight any attempts at privatization.

New PCPA Local chartered

PCPA President Rich Austin presented a charter to the newest pensioner club the Local 46 Gold Coast Pensioners club in Port Hueneme, CA. Rudy Mendez and Steve Garcia accepted the charter on behalf of the new chapter. Active members and ILWU officials have long supported the work of the PCPA. This year was no exception. International President Bob McEllrath, Vice-President Ray Familathe, Vice-President Wesley Furtado, Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams, Coast Committeemen Ray Ortiz, and Local Presidents Joe Cortez (13), Mike Podue (63), Danny Miranda (94), Jeff Smith (8) Pete McEllrath (92) also attended the convention.

Vice President Ray Familathe and Secretary Treasurer Willie Adams addressed the convention on the first day. Familathe recognized the important contributions that pensioners play in ILWU organizing efforts and contract fights. He said the impact of the pensioner’s activism was an important part in getting Rite Aid to agree to a contract with the 500 members of Local 26 working at the Lancaster, CA distribution warehouse.

Secretary-Treasurer Adams outlined many of the political challenges facing the ILWU in the November elections including the anti-union, Proposition 32 in California and the fact that so many politicians on both sides of the aisle lack the courage and backbone to stand up for workers.

“Nobody is going to fight for us but us,” Adams said. “We have to be prepared to fight for ourselves and we can’t depend on one man or one woman in elected office to make a difference for us.”

Former ILWU President Dave Arian, who currently serves on the Los Angeles Port Commission, spoke about the future of automation. Local 13 member and Long Beach Port Commissioner Rich Dines spoke about the plans for future growth and infrastructure modernization in the Port of Long Beach.

Other speakers included Connor Casey, labor archivist for the University of Washington’s Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, CA State Senator Alan Lowenthal, who is a candidate for California’s 47th Congressional District and California Assembly member Bonnie Lowenthal.

John Castanho, ILWU Benefits Specialist and the local area benefits specialists also spoke. Jesse and Lois Stranahan Award Each Convention gives the Jesse and Lois Stranahan Award to an outstanding labor person. This year two awards were presented. One was presented to Lou Loveridge of the Southern California Pensioners Group, and the other was presented posthumously to Al Perisho, also from the Southern California Pensioners who recently passed.

The convention was a great success this year and the work is already underway for next year’s convention that will be held in Portland, OR from September 16 – 18.

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