Sunday, September 21, 2008

NYTimes stokes your class rage ... in the wrong direction.

Apparently, employees of the Long Island Railroad, a commuter rail serving NYC and some suburbs, have been taking advantage of some very lucrative labor loopholes, and some very lax standards for disability status. A giant investigative piece done by two Times reporters reveals that, during one year, 97% of recent retirees applied for and received disability status. (The article includes photos of these same people .... golfing.) Disability status comes with payments of $3,000 a month. Also, via some slightly arcane, union-sponsored work regulations, some senior engineers were able to earn over $250k for a job with a base salary around $50k.

Go read this piece. If you're anything like me, you'll experience a whole array of complicated reactions. Honestly, my primary reaction was:

Hey, fuck you, engineer worker guys! Because
  • I don't have health care or benefits
  • I don't make that much money and never will
  • My 70-year old grandmother is still cleaning houses while you retire to golf heaven at the tender age of 50
  • You took home $250k for a job that doesn't require a college education. Blue-collar jobs for men, having benefited from strong union presence for generations, often involve high wages and benefits. Meanwhile, even college-educated women are working secretarial, childcare, and housework jobs that pay them jack shit. (That's why we need organizations like this.)
This is exactly the reaction the NYTimes wants me to have. They want me to resent these men, to despise them, because they have exploited the system. They want me to say, Fuck the unions! And certainly, if able-bodied men are somehow able to receive $36,000 in annual disability payments, there is something wrong with the application process.

This article makes me angry on behalf of all the people who aren't paid a living wage for their work. All the people with no health care. Or all the people with health care they can barely afford, or health care that doesn't protect them from catastrophic costs. All the people who applied for disability, but were denied. All the people whose disability payments aren't enough to cover serious medical costs. (One Times commenter with a debilitating condition wrote that hers was $736 a month.)

So in light of this, yes, a bunch of old white guys squeezing a cushy life out of a state-subsidized transit company sucks. Long Island Railroad certainly ought to clean up its act, for the sake of public faith and a sustainable budget.

But what these men have done is a drop in the bucket compared to the massive severance packages received by ousted CEO's of failed banks.

The real problem isn't that these retirees have it too good. It's that the rest of the country has it so bad. A huge number of jobs in this country are insecure, low-wage, and without benefits. Even people who've saved all their working life may find they can't afford to retire. And at any moment, an uninsured person like me could be crippled by illness and its enormous cost.

Say we prosecute these old-timer railroad employees for fraud. Make them give back the money they "stole" (legally) from the public coffer. What then? Public punishment of these people might feel good for a moment, but it wouldn't bring us any closer to justice for all.

I think there was a time when we would applaud a company for paying its employees well and taking excellent care of its retirees. Now, as Americans watch their own financial security disintegrate, they're ready to throw tomatoes at anyone with a decent pension. Wrong target, folks.

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