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Retired utility worker and IBEW member Tom Bird knows firsthand that sometimes you have to fight for what is rightfully yours.

Last year Bird and other IBEW Local 1245 retirees in Nevada got together to take on their former employer, NV Energy, which announced that it was making drastic cuts to retiree health benefits—benefits that were promised to them in return for a lifetime of hard work.

Now, Bird and other retired union members are taking on a new opponent—an aspiring U.S. senator who is looking to slash the retirement benefits of millions of working Americans: Sharron Angle.

Says Scott Watts, president of the Nevada chapter of the Alliance for Retired Americans, a national organization of retired union members:

It’s a big concern for us. Seniors can’t afford Sharron Angle in the Senate, simple as that.

Angle, a former state assemblywoman, won the GOP nomination to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November. Drawing support from the extreme right of the party, her controversial comments about privatizing Social Security are raising eyebrows and drawing the ire of Alliance activists.

At a GOP candidates’ forum held in May, she said:

We need to phase out Medicare and Social Security in favor of something privatized.

And her older campaign Web site advocated giving younger workers the choice of opting out of Social Security "as the Social Security system is transitioned out."

Sounding the Alarm

Alliance members have been working to alert Nevadans about Angle’s support for privatizing Social Security and Medicare, holding "red alert" meetings across the state.

Said Bird, a member of the board of directors of the Nevada Alliance for Retired Americans:

She’s made it clear she wants to privatize Social Security, just like Bush tried to.

What really angered Bird was Angle’s reference to Social Security as "welfare" during a radio interview with KNPR in May.

I’ve spent my working career paying into the system. It isn’t a handout, it’s my livelihood.

In addition to organizing local meetings, the Alliance has sponsored pickets at Angle’s office. Their actions made the front page, garnering television coverage from the major network affiliates.

At 58, Bird has a few more years to go before he can collect Social Security, but he says protecting the retirement security system set up 75 years ago by President Franklin Roosevelt is more than just a concern of seniors.

Bird notes that Social Security provides more than just retirement benefits; it helps millions of children, spouses and disabled workers.

Wall Street Goes After Social Security

While Angle’s talk on Social Security is extreme, she is hardly alone in her commitment to slash the system.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the ranking GOP member on the House budget committee, has proposed a privatization plan similar to the one offered by President Bush in 2005.

And in late June, House Minority Leader John Boehner told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the retirement age should be raised to 70.

Peter Peterson, former chief executive of the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, recently set up a national campaign called "America Speaks" to convince voters that Social Security is on the verge of bankruptcy due to the the growing number of baby boomers reaching retirement age.

But as many retirement experts have pointed out, the federal deficit is separate from Social Security, which is actually running a big surplus. As William Greider wrote in the June 7 issue of the Nation:

Social Security has accumulated a massive surplus—$2.5 trillion now, rising to $4.3 trillion by 2023. This money will cover all benefits until the 2040s—unless Congress double-crosses workers by changing the rules.

For Bird, slashing Social Security isn’t just cutting a lifeline for millions of Americans; it means putting at risk one of the federal government’s most successful programs. The National Academy of Social Insurance estimates that without Social Security, nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty.

With Boehner hoping for enough GOP victories in the fall to put him in the Speaker’s chair, Bird says it’s vital that retirees across the country learn the facts about Social Security and get active in defense of their retirement benefits.

Some people say their votes don’t count. Well, elections matter and if we want to defend everything we’ve worked for, we need to make our voices heard.

Originally posted to The Electrical Worker on Fri Jul 30, 2010 at 05:40 AM PDT.

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