KERNERSVILLE, Dec 6 (AP): President George W Bush says American companies must honou promises to their retired workers and is urging Congress to pass tough legislation so retirees don't see their pension checks slashed.
"In our society, we've had some companies - big companies - go bankrupt, and workers at those companies know what I'm talking about," Bush said. "And so my message to corporate America is: You need to fulfil your promises."
With millions of baby boomers approaching retirement age, anxiety is growing about the security of workers' pensions and the prospect that taxpayers will get stuck with massive bills for bailing out failed pension funds in the airline and steel industries. Automakers say they, too, are being hammered by high labour, pension and health care costs.
Bush sought to relieve economic anxieties in a speech at a Deere-Hitachi Construction Machinery Corp plant near Greensboro, North Carolina, where workers gave him a warm reception.
"This economy is strong, and the best days are yet to come for the American economy," said Bush, who is facing low poll ratings over his handling of the economy despite positive, upward trends.
The administration is frustrated that the pessimism has not been dispelled by good economic news. Bush said nearly 4.5 million new jobs have been added since May 2003, including 215,000 in November.
"You know, throughout the last century, we often heard pessimists telling us that our best days are behind us, and that the future belongs to others," Bush said.
He led an unsuccessful campaign this year to remake the government's Social Security universal retirement programme through creation of personal accounts. The legislation failed to reach the floor of either the House of Representatives or the Senate because of near-unanimous opposition by the minority Democrats and polls that showed voter unhappiness with the president's plan. His speech Monday marked an attempt to build momentum for protecting private pension systems.
Bush said federal rules governing pension plans are "confusing and misleading" and let companies technically abide by the rules while not really fulfilling the promises they have made to workers.
In the end, taxpayers wind up paying the bill because the federal government insures many pension plans.
The White House says legislation emerging from Senate negotiations would relax rather than strengthen funding rules for pensions, while a bill moving through the House was weakened by the long transition period it would allow before tighter funding requirements would take effect.
"I'm not going to sign a bill that weakens pension funding for the American workers," Bush said.
General Motors last month announced that it plans to cut 30,000 North American hourly jobs by 2008. Hammered by declining sales and rising health care costs, the world's largest automaker said it was eliminating the positions as it tries to stem losses that approached $4 billion (euro3.4 billion) in the first nine months of this year.
"Obviously, GM has some big challenges right now primarily because they make automobiles that are less fuel-efficient; with higher energy prices, the American people are interested in more fuel-efficient cars," Al Hubbard, a top Bush economic adviser and chairman of the National Economic Council, told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Bush demanded that Congress to pass long-pending health and energy legislation and to extend tax cuts that are due to expire.
Democrats were quick to criticize the president's speech.