Workers condemn King’s proposal to raise the Social Security retirement age / by Dan Neumann

Sen. Angus King in the U.S. Capitol in 2021. | Anna Moneymaker, Getty

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on March 2, 2023

One of the state’s biggest unions said its members are deeply concerned about a proposal floated by independent Sen. Angus King and a group of Senate Republicans to slash Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age to 70. 

“Social Security is a critical lifeline for working-class people and we strongly condemn any action to cut it, including raising the retirement age,” said Andy O’Brien, communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, which represents more than 40,000 workers and retirees across the state. “While the rich in this country are living longer than ever, the disparity in life expectancy between the haves and have nots is getting worse. These proposals would significantly harm working class, low-income, Black and Indigenous people, who on average have much lower life expectancy rates than wealthy Americans.”

O’Brien added, “The labor movement is closely watching this debate in Congress and we will vigorously defend our retirement security against any attacks.”

Semafor reported on Tuesday that King is in talks with a group of Republican senators led by Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy to formulate a bill that could include raising the Social Security retirement age from 67 to 70. 

Other policy considerations reportedly being discussed include tweaking a benefits formula to take into account the amount of years a person has worked, and expanding the program’s ability to invest in private stocks, rather than the current trust fund model. 

Spokespersons for King and Cassidy said the focus of the negotiations is to keep the Social Security trust fund from going insolvent in nine years. The looming insolvency is spurred by a combination of Social Security payroll taxes dropping during the pandemic and retiring Baby Boomers expanding the number of beneficiaries.

But Republicans’ sincerity about fixing the solvency issues is in dispute.

The timing of the talks between King and Republicans is prompted by the need for Congress to strike a deal on raising the debt ceiling, which Republicans have previously threatened to take hostage to force cuts to Social Security.

For example, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has proposed waiving Social Security payroll taxes altogether as a way to keep people in the labor force longer and combat a tight labor market. 

“The lawmakers claim that they’re looking at benefit cuts and reforms due to concern over the solvency of Social Security — though Republicans have been clear that their intentions are to slash benefits and force people to depend on work to survive for even longer into old age,” Truthout reported.

The reporting on the talks between King and Senate Republicans did not include any proposals to solve the solvency issue by increasing the amount of money going into the trust fund.

On the progressive wing of the Senate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, have introduced a bill to increase retirement benefits by scrapping the income cap on the Social Security payroll tax. Currently, income over about $160,000 a year isn’t subject to the payroll tax. About 20% of current and future covered workers have earnings above the taxable maximum, according to the Social Security Administration.

Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, has co-sponsored multiple bills to lift the income cap, including Connecticut Rep. John Larson’s proposal to subject those who earn more than $400,000 per year to payroll taxes and Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s bill to raise the income cap to $250,000.

“Congress must scrap the income cap allowing millionaires and billionaires to pay a Social Security tax on only $160,200 of their income,” Pingree said in a statement. 

She noted that with the cap in place, people making $1 million a year stop paying into the program by the end of February, adding: “Today, Feb. 28, actually marks the day when the wealthiest Americans stop paying into Social Security for the entire year — pretty crazy when you consider that most Mainers will be paying in until Dec. 31. As Republicans plan to cut, privatize, and even end Social Security, our best option is to sunset the cap and protect the hard-earned benefits of older Mainers.”

Spokespersons for King and Cassidy did not say whether lifting the income cap is currently a part of their talks. 

“The Social Security trust fund is going insolvent in nine years. Senators Cassidy and King have been working on a legislative solution — which has been reported in the past. The plan is not finalized,” the senators’ offices said in a joint statement.

“This is an example of two leaders trying to find a solution to a clear and foreseeable danger across party lines,” the statement continued. “Although the final framework is still taking shape, there are no cuts for Americans currently receiving Social Security benefits in our plan. Indeed, many will receive additional benefits.”

The consequences of raising the retirement age would mean deep cuts for people who claim early. Social Security allows a person to retire as early as age 62, although by taking a significant reduction in their benefits. That reduction goes up as the full retirement age is raised. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that raising the retirement age to 70 would mean a retiree at age 62 would receive only 57% of their full monthly benefit.

“Most people claim early, which means they could receive as little as half their full benefit,” CBPP reported in 2016. “Nearly half of retirement beneficiaries claim benefits at age 62. Some of these beneficiaries — especially those with lower earnings — are in poor health but don’t meet the stringent criteria for disability benefits.” 

CBPP also found that raising the retirement age hits low-income workers, disproportionately people of color, the hardest.

“Though raising the retirement age cuts everyone’s benefits roughly equally, it affects incomes unequally,” CBPP reported. “That’s because Social Security benefits make up a greater share of income for low- to middle-income retirees, as well as for minorities.”

Kelly Hayes, a contributing writer at Truthout, also noted that cuts are being proposed as American life expectancy has fallen. 

“Life expectancies are dropping and they want to raise the retirement age,” Hayes tweeted on Tuesday. “They want you to work until you’re dead, but at a certain point, no one is going to hire you. What are people without money supposed to do in this country? Die or be caged. This is an age of social disposal.”

Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan(at)

Union wins at Staten Island Amazon, too close to call in Alabama / by Mark Gruenberg

Amazon Labor Union organizers are celebrating first-ever Amazon warehouse union election victory. Photo: Luis Feliz Leon

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Workers at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse scored a historic victory today by winning their vote to unionize with the independent Amazon Labor Union.

Meanwhile, the vote at the Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse is too close to call because of the large number of challenged ballots.

The NLRB Brooklyn office covers elections at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island. There, the independent Amazon Labor Union aimed to win among approximately 5,000 workers. ALU tweets showed the union’s margin steadily grew through the afternoon of March 31. The NLRB also has ordered a vote for or against ALU at another Staten Island warehouse, date to be set.

The final numbers: yes (for union) 2654, no 2131, challenged 67, eligible voters 8325.

The Amazon elections are important for workers for a variety of reasons. Both unions aimed to overcome rampant hostility and expensive union-busting tactics by Amazon. Jeff Bezos, one of the nation’s three richest people, created the rapidly growing and highly exploitative retail warehouser, distributor, and monster. It employs 1.1 million workers.

RWDSU’s try, its second in Bessemer, also symbolizes organized labor’s attempt to break through government and corporate hate in the nastily anti-union South. It shows, too, the weakness of U.S. labor law, which workers are campaigning in Congress to strengthen.

The NLRB ordered the Bessemer rerun, which occurred a year after rampant company labor law-breaking skewed the first vote and made a fair decision impossible. The board ordered Amazon not to interfere with RWDSU’s second organizing drive.

But NLRB didn’t ban a big law-breaking tactic the firm used in Bessemer. Amazon again placed a mailbox for ballots in the warehouse parking lot. But it had to move the mailbox away from the main entrance. The first time, its presence at the front door, under an Amazon logo and company cameras, gave workers the impression that Amazon, not the NLRB, ran the vote.

And the NLRB can’t ban Amazon from hiring union-busters, which it did in both plants.

In Bessemer, Amazon also tried replacement workers, especially due to the 150% worker turnover. Appelbaum noted that between the time the NLRB set the rerun date and the actual vote, hundreds of workers quit. “They voted with their feet” against corporate exploitation, he said.

One “replacement” who spoke, Braxton Wright, is one of 1,100 locked-out United Mine Workers from Alabama’s nearby Warrior Met coal mine. “I saw what they go through” at Bessemer, he said. “The union-busters avoided me like the plague.”

Conditions changed in Bessemer the second time around. Worker-organizer Jennifer Bates said in-plant “captive audience” meetings this time saw Bessemer workers don RWDSU t-shirts, hats, and buttons and bluntly challenge Amazon’s bosses and its union-busters.

“I’ve been in those meetings. They’re designed to manipulate and intimidate” the workers, she added. “We’re going to continue to fight.”

Amazon Labor Union’s campaign to win a majority of votes at JFK8 on Staten Island is notable for another reason. ALU is an independent union from the grass-roots up and the workers there are younger. Young workers aged 16-24 are the least-unionized age cohort of the labor force, Labor Department data shows.

And by not affiliating with an international union, ALU’s team could maneuver inside the warehouse for weeks before officially unveiling their organizing drive.

Appelbaum cited other key differences between the two campaigns, besides ALU’s independence. “I’m absolutely thrilled” by ALU’s lead in the Staten Island count, he said. “And I have to give a lot of credit to ALU President Chris Smalls.”

Two other differences helped ALU, Appelbaum added. One is geography: “New York City is a union town, and…Alabama is a right-to-work state” and union-hostile. The other is the difference between mail-in balloting and in-person voting.

Pandemic played a part too

The coronavirus pandemic played a part, too, he noted. In the first campaign, in 2020 and early 2021, the virus’s lockdowns prevented RWDSU organizers from going door-to-door to talk with workers one-on-one and field their questions. This time, with the pandemic receding and his organizers—and many workers—vaccinated, they could.

RWDSU also benefited, Appelbaum said, from vocal and actual support, via organizers and members, from other unions nationwide. “They realize Amazon can’t become the model” for the future of work in the U.S., he explained. So they came down to door-knock, too.

Younger workers, like those in ALU, are also the moving force behind recent organizing drives in low-paying industries, not just Amazon. They grabbed the reins, later with Workers United aid, in organizing another retail monster, Starbucks, store by store, and eye others.

And unlike established unions—including RWDSU, a semi-independent United Food and Commercial Workers sector—the Amazon Labor Union stays out of politics, shunning endorsements and ties, even in heavily unionized New York City.

The Starbucks workers, also from the grassroots, have won five out of six recognition elections at stores in Buffalo, N.Y., another in Boston, and one in Mesa, Ariz., so far. Now they’re unionizing in Portland, Ore., and in Memphis, Tenn.

Besides hiring union-busters in Bessemer, Amazon enlisted prominent pro-Democratic pollster GSG to create anti-union videos and flyers for Staten Island. That may cost it business among Dem candidates. GSG operatives attended mandatory “captive audience” meetings in Staten Island. There, too, company honchos harangued the workers and spread disinformation about the grass-roots union—and hit opposition from vocal and unafraid workers.

And on March 7, Amazon had police arrest Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls and two other organizers who were delivering chicken and pasta lunches to workers inside JFK8. They charged the three with trespassing. Amazon illegally fired Smalls in 2020 for leading a lunchtime walkout of JFK8 workers over lax precautions against the coronavirus.

Company labor law-breaking isn’t the only problem the Amazon Bessemer workers face. On March 25, RWDSU reported what workers first thought was a fire on the third floor of the four-story warehouse, which is the size of five football fields. But it was a malfunctioning compressor, spraying vaporized oil into an air vent and clouding the floor.

At 1:30 pm, the third floor’s workers were ordered to clock out and evacuate, robbing them of paid hours, RWDSU said. The workers on the other floors weren’t told about the threat at all, even after the vapor cloud spread to the first floor three hours later.

They learned of the hazard by talking, worker to worker, and finally leaving at 5:45 p.m. The cloud was still hovering in the Bessemer warehouse when the evening shift arrived at 7 p.m. They weren’t told either. Amazon workers later notified the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the hazard.

“At first, I thought my glasses were just smudged, but then the air got thicker, and my co-worker said he thought it was smoke and we should leave,” worker Isaiah Thomas told RWDSU. “Everyone was very confused, and the lack of information made us feel very unsafe.

“I was shocked why they would have the rest of us keep working, and why there was no notification or alarm sounded for all those hours. I don’t know what I was breathing in for that long, and I don’t know if it’s still in the air at work today either. I feel very unsafe and I wish management would treat us like humans and care about our safety in a real way.”

“Amazon deliberately put the health of their Bessemer, Ala., workers at risk! Their conduct is unacceptable!” RWDSU’s Appelbaum tweeted.

“Why is my health less important than a package getting shipped? Yesterday (March 25) was the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire” which killed more than 140 immigrant woman workers at a lower Manhattan sweatshop in 1911, Thomas added. “In 2022 workers shouldn’t have to fear dying in a fire at work.”

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

People’s World, April 1, 2022,