Editorials

Happy Labor Day? Workers have little to celebrate

In June, 2016, thousands of retired and active members of the United Mine Workers of America attended a rally in Lexington to support federal bills to shore up union health and pension funds.
In June, 2016, thousands of retired and active members of the United Mine Workers of America attended a rally in Lexington to support federal bills to shore up union health and pension funds. cbertram@herald-leader.com

It’s Labor Day weekend, fire up the grill, but let’s not pretend that workers have much to celebrate.

In Kentucky, schoolteachers, police officers, firefighters and other public workers are threatened with the loss of promised retirement benefits.

Not just public employees are worried, though. Pensions are at risk for 86,000 retired coal miners and 400,000-plus retired and active Teamsters, while the federal insurer that partially backs private-sector pensions is itself teetering.

About 30 percent of American workers lack access to any kind of employer-provided retirement plan, while 47 percent report they’ve saved less than $25,000.

The details get complicated, but the stakes are simple: In the world’s richest country, the reward for a life of work should not be an impoverished old age.

The booming stock market is swelling 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts for workers in defined-contribution plans. But investment decisions are difficult for the average person and the Trump administration is not making them any easier.

An Obama-era rule would require financial advisers to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own pursuit of fees and commissions when giving advice or selling investments for retirement accounts. The Trump people keep delaying enforcement of the rule, even though the courts have upheld it and, without it, savers will lose billions of dollars. Trump’s delays please Wall Street brokerage houses which fear the fiduciary rule could be expanded to include non-retirement accounts and are pushing to kill it. Republicans in Congress, including Rep. Andy Barr, are eager to help them.

In Kentucky, an infusion of untraceable money is funding a campaign to drum up public support for saving pensions by ending pensions for new hires and rolling them back for others. Public employees are blamed for the state’s budget woes, even though they paid for their retirements with every paycheck while a succession of governors and legislatures failed to hold up their end of the deal.

More than half of the retirees in the state and county systems receive pensions of $20,000 or less a year. A consultant hired by Gov. Matt Bevin has recommended that some of those pensions be cut by up to 32 percent.

But closing tax loopholes, including breaks for rich retirees, to raise revenue to keep pension promises and protect Kentucky’s credit rating seems to be off the table.

Workers have been losing ground for a long time. Wages have stagnated as union membership plummeted. Gains from economic growth flow more lopsidedly than ever to the very wealthy few. Employers complain they can’t fill jobs but aren’t raising wages. Official unemployment is low, but more than 14 million Americans want a full-time job and can’t get one, according to the Labor Department.

Contrary to President Donald Trump’s populist campaign pledges, his tax plan would widen the wealth gap by showering the rich with tax cuts.

On this, the 123rd Labor Day, workers are losing. A widespread belief that the economy is rigged helped propel Trump into the White House but he has surrounded himself with Wall Street insiders and lobbyists who are working hard to keep it that way..

Americans who think a thriving middle is class is essential not just to the economy but also to a decent country should enjoy the holiday then get back to work demanding justice from those who represent them.

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