Darwin Cooper looked out at a crowd of several hundred fellow retired autoworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, and started shooting questions.
"How many of you have had surgery for carpal tunnel?" he shouted into the microphone.
More than 50 men and women stood up.
"How many of you have had knee replacements?"
Another 60 or so rose from their seats.
"How many of you have had back surgery?"
More than 150 people were now standing.
He was just getting started. In interviews during lunch, many of the former autoworkers — a number of them not yet 60 — described their hip replacements, foot surgeries, heart bypasses and ripped rotator cuffs. Some ailments evolved through the normal wear and tear of aging, but most were the result of repetitive jobs performed on GM assembly lines at Lordstown.
I asked to meet with the former autoworkers because the White House is considering changes in Social Security. Currently, the normal retirement age to qualify for full benefits is 66, but that will rise to 67 by 2022. Soon-to-be Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican, has advocated for raising the age as high as 70. A few Democrats have proposed similar changes.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research reported in August that proponents of raising the retirement age like to point out that Americans live longer and healthier lives than previous generations but that they fail to acknowledge that this is primarily because of the decline in infant and teen mortality. They also don't address the physical punishment of blue-collar labor. Most workers would be unable to stay on the job longer. For too many of them, the only option would be to retire with reduced benefits.
Cheerleaders for older retirement tend to be people whose idea of a hard day's work is to loosen their ties for a late-night call to a campaign donor. Or, as retired autoworker Ella Johnson put it to me, "they've never worked on an assembly line or in a coal mine but sit behind desks and write laws for those of us who do."
Ella is 59. She worked on GM's assembly line for 25 years. She has had surgery on both knees, has carpel tunnel in her wrists and has an injured right rotator cuff. During our interview, she sat with fellow retiree Gwendolyn Windom, who is 67 and started working at the plant in 1970 as a single mother with three children. Windom suffered an on-the-job concussion so severe she had to stay in a darkened room for six months while her mother moved in to care for the children. She later had surgery to rebuild the arch of her left foot and had two disks removed from her back.
"You're standing on a concrete floor all day, every day," Windom said. "It wears a body completely down."
Jim Tripp, who used to represent injured workers at hearings, said assembly line workers bear unique hardships compared with other types of manual laborers.
"Let me put it this way," 73-year-old Tripp said. "Think of another job where you have to raise your hand to go to the bathroom. You can't leave your spot on the line until there is another worker to take your place."
Many spouses attended a recent lunch for UAW Local 1112 retirees, including 82-year-old Dorothy Snovak. She wanted me to know about her 87-year-old husband, Michael, who worked as a pipe fitter for 23 years at the plant.
"He worked so hard, and he'd come home so tired," she said, smiling softly as she held my hand. "Sometimes he'd talk about how the bosses would hide behind something and try to catch him making a mistake."
She shook her head, and her smile faded.
"You know, you tell someone like my husband what you need done, he's going to do it. So much stress in that job. Sometimes he'd come home and he'd have to get it off his chest. He'd usually talk about it at dinnertime. That wasn't always the best time for digestion."
She did what she could.
"I'd massage his back at night," she said.
But only after their children were tucked in to bed.
"He didn't want to ask for that in front of the kids, you know," she said. "He never wanted them to know how much he hurt."
© 2010 Creators Syndicate