Guaranteeing America's working people a decent retirement has become increasingly difficult with the decline of traditional pension plans and the glaring inadequacy of the 401 (k) savings accounts that have replaced them.
So what to do? The answer is obvious to the AFL-CIO, and should be to everyone else: Increase Social Security benefits.
As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka notes, "Social Security is a phenomenally successful program that represents the very best in American values and has virtually no waste, no corruption and almost no overhead."
The program does have one serious problem, however – "its benefits are too low."
Trumka certainly has that right. The average Social Security payout for men is only about $16,000 a year, barely above the minimum wage. Payouts for women average only about $12,000 a year, barely above the poverty line.
Most of those drawing benefits earned much more during their working days. The retirement programs in most other industrialized countries pay retirees benefits in amounts far closer to what they made while working.
It's for a very good reason that the AFL-CIO has taken an official position calling for "an across the board increase in Social Security benefits," including adjustments to account for retirees' steadily escalating health care costs and, among other economic setbacks, "the loss of home equity experienced by millions of Americans in the Great Recession."
Remedial action is clearly needed. As the AFL-CIO says, "Our retirement system is falling apart at the seams. Millions of Americans are afraid to retire because they know they can't maintain their standard of living in retirement, and more and more seniors have to keep working well past the age when they should be retiring."
Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who calls Social Security "the most successful program in history," has introduced a bill – the Rebuild America Act – that includes changes in the program such as the AFL-CIO is advocating.
Harkin's bill would increase benefits by about $60-$70 a month and guarantee that the trust fund from which benefits are drawn would remain solvent and able to pay out full benefits for at least another 40 years, in large part by removing the $110,100 cap on income subject to Social Security deductions.
Quite a contrast to what's been discussed in Washington, where most of the talk about Social Security has been about Republican proposals to cut benefits. That has especially included increasing the retirement age and cutting back cost-of-living adjustments.
Harkin's measure would not only revitalize the Social Security system. It also calls for modernizing transportation and energy infrastructures and education systems, increasing access to quality child care, expanding time-and-a-half overtime pay, raising the minimum wage, increasing the availability of paid sick leave, expanding union rights and increasing opportunities for disabled workers. The bill also would end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.
Increasing Social Security benefits remains a top priority with Harkin and other Democrats. As the AFL-CIO sees it, "the overwhelming majority of working Americans of every political persuasion in every part of the country 'get' the absolutely critical importance of adequate Social Security benefits, but our elites don't seem to get it. Social security is the solution, not the problem."
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, dickmeister.com.