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The Subtle, Insidious Game of Undermining Social Security From Within

Social Security unionists see serious threats to the program coming from the inside.
 
 
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When the Alliance for Retired Americans rallied at an Orlando Social Security office November 8, workers came out, spoke to the crowd, and said they would put up “Don’t Cut My Social Security” signs in their cubicles.

Social Security unionists see threats to the program from the inside, in some ways more subtle than benefit cuts, but just as insidious over the long run.

Jim Campana is an officer in the Government Employees (AFGE) union representing Social Security workers in Lansing, Michigan. He says that after President George W. Bush lost his bid to privatize the program in 2005, “the first thing he did was destroy the security part of Social Security. It used to be that people knew it would be there for them. Now a lot of people have lost that confidence.”

Dana Duggins, a vice president of AFGE Council 220, said administrators have been on a mission “to strip away the reasons why the public rejected privatization.”

Management is making the program less efficient and less user-friendly, and enforcing methods that wrongly lower benefits, while nurturing the seed of doubt that Social Security can last.

Filing Online

Michael Astrue, the Social Security Administration (SSA) commissioner appointed by Bush, went full throttle with an internet claims system. Those seeking retirement or disability benefits are encouraged to fill out forms online.

But with I-claims, Duggins says, “85 percent of the time the person is disadvantaging themselves. They complete the information based on what their neighbor told them. They’re guessing.”

The commissioner, who will be in office until January 2013, has insisted that employees not question information on the applications. “He says everybody these days has their own financial advisor,” Duggins said. “This is the elitist attitude he works from.”

AFGE has surveyed claims representatives, who receive 12 to 16 weeks of intense training to know the system, and found them unhappy with I-claims.

“We are trained to pay the right person the right amount at the right time and not play games with people’s livelihoods,” Duggins said. “The old-timers have always had the ethics of going the extra mile to make sure you’re being paid correctly. Now the policy’s changed to ‘you no longer question this.’

“We have employees all over that take the effort to do it anyway.”

Speed-up

Employees are supposed to review online claims, but only by working them in around their face-to-face appointments—and both personnel and overtime have been cut drastically. SSA will soon be down to 45,000 AFGE-represented members, from 53,000 in 2010. Overtime was cut to 17,000 hours this year, less than a half-hour annually per worker, and will be zero in the next fiscal year.

Offices are also closing earlier.

To top it off, as of October 1, taxpayers are no longer mailed annual statements of their accumulated benefits. “That benefit statement reiterates to young folks, ‘you are getting something back,’” Duggins said. “Take that away and it allows for the doubts to creep in.”

Astrue says he’ll save $70 million by canceling the paper statements. But employees doubt that saving money is really his top priority—since he’s also building a $55 million fence around headquarters.

 

Jane Slaughter is an editor at Labor Notes, and the author of several books including "Concessions and How To Beat Them," and co-author — with Mike Parker — of "Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept" and "Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering." Slaughter also edited "A Troublemaker's Handbook 2."