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Posts Tagged ‘pensions’

Detroit firefighters and police face pension cuts with no safety net. Not even Social Security.

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Laura ClawsonLosing a pension you’ve worked years to earn is a nightmare scenario, one that can change a comfortable, secure retirement into one filled with worries and penny-pinching as Social Security goes from being part of your retirement income to all of it. For public workers in many places, including firefighters and police in Detroit, it’s a doomsday scenario, because they don’t get Social Security at all.

About 30 percent of public employees nationwide aren’t covered by Social Security; government workers weren’t covered by the program at its inception and while many have been moved under its umbrella over the years, some cities, towns, and states continue to run pension plans that don’t include Social Security. Detroit’s firefighters and police are in that group:

Of the nearly 21,000 city retirees now collecting pensions, 9,017 retired police officers, firefighters or their surviving spouses don’t get Social Security, or about 44 percent of all city pensioners.

For those who have worked in other jobs for long enough to qualify for Social Security, those benefits are reduced by a percentage of their Detroit pension. That’s not a lavish pension, by the way: The average annual police pension in Detroit is $30,000, compared with $58,000 in Los Angeles, $47,000 in Dallas, and $42,000 in Kansas City. And public workers’ pensions, unlike the pensions of many private sector workers, aren’t insured by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, meaning if they lose their Detroit pensions, that’s it, there’s no safety net to catch them.

What we’re talking about here are workers who spent decades earning less than they might have elsewhere in exchange for the promise of a secure—though not lavish—retirement. And now they face the very real threat of being left with a small fraction of what they earned and need to live on. They kept their promises to the city of Detroit. It must keep its promises to them.

This article originally posted on Daily Kos Labor on August 12, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:  Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos

Banking On Bankruptcy: Emails Suggest Negotiations With Detroit Retirees Were Designed To Fail

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Even before one of their own was appointed emergency manager of the city, lawyers who were consulting with Michigan officials over the winter believed Detroit should move into bankruptcy proceedings that would free the city to walk away from its commitments to retirees. Emails between Kevyn Orr — now Detroit’s emergency manager but at the time an attorney for the law firm Jones Day — and his colleagues show the lawyers believed moving directly to bankruptcy would be better for the city than going through a serious negotiating process.

In one email, an assistant to Gov. Rick Snyder (R) promises to set a meeting between Orr and someone “who is not FOIAble,” suggesting an intent to evade transparency laws. In another, Jones Day lawyers suggest to Orr that elevating Detroit’s bankruptcy in national media coverage would “give you cover and options on the back end to make up for lost time there.” Orr rejected that suggestion as unhelpful. Jones Day continues to represent Detroit in the proceedings, which could take a year or longer.

The messages made public thusfar show Jones Day attorneys defining bankruptcy as inevitable in their own words.

“It seems that the ideal scenario would be that Snyder and Bing both agree that the best option is simply to go through an orderly Chapter 9 [bankruptcy],” one Jones Day attorney writes to Orr in the emails. “Appointing an Emergency Manager, whose ability to actually do anything is questionable given the looming political and legal fights, would only serve to kick the can down the wrong path and unreasonably delay any meaningful resolution of Detroit’s problems.” Defining bankruptcy as the only route to a “meaningful resolution of Detroit’s problems” casts further doubt on the intent of the negotiations that followed Orr’s appointment in March, but a spokesman for Orr called those doubts “absurd.”

The emails were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Robert Davis, a local labor activist with a troubled history. Davis faces federal corruption charges over school board funds that were spent on an advertising campaign. When the charges were filed in 2012,Davis called them politically motivated and said he is innocent.

One January exchange shows Orr reluctant to take on the emergency manager job, and concerned that the law empowering Gov. Rick Snyder (R) to appoint such officials “is a clear end-around the prior initiative that was rejected by the voters in November.” One January 31, Orr wrote that the entire emergency manager system “appears to merely adopts [sic] the conditions necessary for a chapter 9 filing.”

Orr’s assessment of the emergency manager process reinforces retiree advocates’ arguments that Orr’s actions once appointed were not good-faith negotiations with city employees, but an effort to check necessary boxes prior to filing for bankruptcy. In June, when Orr issued a proposal to retirees and bondholders in lieu of declaring bankruptcy, analysts wrote that the proposal appeared designed to be unpalatable, paving the way for the bankruptcy filing. Orr and Snyder have made clear that the bankruptcy resolution will include some cuts to retiree benefits, which are about $1,600 per month for most of the city’s 21,000 pensioners. “They made me some promises, and I made them some promises,” 76-year-old retired police sergeant William Shine told the New York Times. “I kept my promises. They’re not going to keep theirs.

Some legal hurdles may prevent the city from reneging on pension promises in bankruptcy, but the outlook is uncertain.

This article originally posted on ThinkProgress on July 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:  Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org.

Strong Grassroots Actions Block Mass. Pension Scheme

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Image: Mike HallUnion members in Swampscott, Mass., this week showed just how grassroots democracy works when a coalition of unions from the North Shore Labor Council mobilized to turn back an attack on public employees’ health care and retirement security.

First a little background. In the Bay State, municipal employees’ health and retirement benefits, while negotiated on a local level, are part of a state-administered system. However, a Massachusetts “Home Rule Petition” law allows cities and towns to seek exemption from certain state laws and regulations.

In February, Swampscott’s Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 to seek a Home Rule Petition to cut town workers’ pensions by moving from the state system’s defined-benefit plan to a self-administered defined-contribution plan, and to change health care benefits. But a Home Rule Petition must be approved at a Town Meeting. In Swampscott, a town of about 14,000, that meant approximately 250 voter-elected Town Meeting members had to give the OK.

That’s when union members went to work to convince Town Meeting members that not only would the changes proposed for the teachers, firefighters, police officers, librarians and other public employees hurt the workers, it would save no money and be a major financial risk for Swampscott.

With a few months before the May 6 Town Meeting, unions and the labor council mapped out a mobilization strategy that included leafleting and neighborhood door knocking by union members, spotlighting the danger of the Home Rule Petition scheme. Postcards to each union member in town urged them to get in touch with their Town Meeting member—more than likely a neighbor or friend—to vote against the cuts to health care and retirement.

On May 6, the hard work paid off when the Home Rule Petition was defeated by better than a 3-to-1 margin.

The unions that carried the campaign to victory included AFSCME, Fire Fighters (IAFF), MassCOPS (an IUPA affiliate) and NEA.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on May 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

Flight Attendants Push for Equal Benefits for Domestic Partners

Monday, January 14th, 2013
Kenneth Quinnell

Kenneth Quinnell

Flight attendants who work for Spirit Airlines filed a lawsuit against the airline for reneging on a contractual commitment to provide equal benefits for all employees by forcing employees who want health care coverage for their domestic partners into a lower-quality health care plan than the plan covering other employees. The flight attendants, members of the Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), said that management is using procedural loopholes to avoid providing equal benefits. Todd St. Pierre, the AFA-CWA president at Spirit, said:

We are outraged that management refuses to treat the families of their employees equally. At a time when equality issues have sparked a social awakening across our nation, management’s trampling on employees’ rights is deplorable. Their discriminatory behavior must be rectified immediately. Flight Attendants worked hard to ensure that these rights were included in our legally binding contract so that we could provide health care security for our loved ones. Shame on Spirit management for their blatant disregard for equality and for turning their backs on their obligations.

In a related story, aerospace manufacturer Boeing Co. said that despite the passage of a referendum legalizing gay marriage in Washington State—where Boeing has significant operations—they were not required to provide same-sex couples with benefits, including pensions. While Boeing publicly says they are evaluating what the referendum means to them, SPEEA/IFPTE Local 2001 executive director Ray Goforth said that Boeing officials explicitly told him that the benefits would not be extended to same-sex couples.

Alaska Airlines flight attendants, also members of AFA-CWA, issued a statement supporting members of SPEEA at Boeing in their fight for equal rights. Alaska AFA-CWA President Jeffrey Peterson said:

“AFA has a longstanding commitment to equality regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression which is why Alaska Flight Attendants stand in solidarity with our aviation colleagues at Boeing in their struggle for equal rights. With an all-Boeing fleet of aircraft, Alaska Flight Attendants depend on the professionalism and dedication of SPEEA members each and every day.

Voters in nine states across the nation have instructed their elected representatives to address marriage equality issues. Recently in Washington, all couples regardless of gender finally have the opportunity to legally marry. Yet, Boeing is refusing to recognize married couples equally.

We are all partners in the success of the aviation industry and we call on Boeing executives to provide equal benefits to all couples legally married under state law.”

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on January 14, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.  He is the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.

Just When You Thought the Hostess Story Couldn't Get Worse...

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

Kenneth Quinnell

Money that was intended for employee pensions was used by Hostess Brands management to cover operating expenses and workers were never compensated for the lost payment, Yahoo News reports. An undetermined amount of money that Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Miller (BCTGM) members were supposed to receive as part of their contract with the company was used to keep the company running after mismanagement led to significant losses and eventual bankruptcy. 

This was during the same time period that Hostess began paying out massive bonuses to executives. BCTGM learned that the then-Hostess CEO was to be awarded a 300% raise, and at least nine other top executives were to receive raises ranging between 35% and 80%.

The process of taking the pension money was quite simple for Hostess:

For example, John Jordan, the local union financial officer for [BCTGM] Local 334 in Biddeford, Maine, said workers at a Hostess factory in Biddeford agreed to plow 28 cents of their 30-cents-an-hour wage increase in November 2010 into the pension plan.

Hostess was supposed to take the additional 28 cents an hour and contribute it to the workers’ pension plan.

Employees never saw that 28 cents. In July 2011, Hostess stopped making pension contributions and used the money to run the business. Employees never received the pension funds and the compensation Hostess promised the workers was not made up in wages, either.

In all likelihood, the tactic doesn’t violate federal law because the money didn’t get paid to employees first, but went directly to the pension fund. Lawyers call the situation “betrayal without remedy” and it’s unlikely the money can be recovered.

Hostess CEO Gregory Rayburn’s response ranged from understatement to “it’s not my fault.”

Gregory Rayburn, Hostess’s chief executive officer, said in an interview it is “terrible” that employee wages earmarked for the pension were steered elsewhere by the company.

“I think it’s like a lot of things in this case,” he added. “It’s not a good situation to have.”

Mr. Rayburn became chief executive in March and learned about the issue shortly before the company shut down, he said. “Whatever the circumstances were, whatever those decisions were, I wasn’t there,” he said.

Rayburn’s predecessor at Hostess, Brian Driscoll, refused to comment.

The end of pension contributions by the company was a key reason for the BCTGM strike:

Halted pension contributions were a major factor in the bakers union’s refusal to make a deal with the company. After a U.S. bankruptcy judge granted Hostess’s request to impose a new contract, the union’s employees went on strike. Hostess then moved to liquidate the company.

“The company’s cessation of making pension contributions was a critical component of the bakers’ decision” to walk off the job, said Jeffrey Freund of Bredhoff & Kaiser PLLC, a lawyer for the union.

“If they had continued to fund the pension, I think we’d still be working there today,” said Craig Davis, a 44-year-old forklift operator who loaded trucks with Twinkies, cupcakes and sweet rolls at an Emporia, Kan., bakery, for nearly 22 years.

The amount of employee compensation lost by the company is not known, but the numbers are staggering:

In five months before this past January’s bankruptcy filing, the company missed payments to the main baker pension fund totaling $22.1 million, Mr. Freund said.

After that, forgone pension payments added up at a rate of $3 million to $4 million a month until Hostess formally rejected its contracts with the union. The figures include company contributions and employee wages that were earmarked for the pension, according to Mr. Freund.

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on December 11, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a senior writer for AFL-CIO, and a former precinct committeeman in the Leon County Democratic Party. He is a former vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party’s Legislative Liaison Committee, and during the 2010 election, through the primary, Kenneth Quinnell worked for the Kendrick Meek campaign. He has written for Think Progress, AFSCME and for OurFuture.org on Social Security.

Where Did All Our Pensions Go?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

A total of 84,350 pension plans have vanished since 1985. This figure shocked Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Donald L. Barlett and James W. Steele, who just released their latest book, “The Betrayal of the American Dream.” Their chapter on retirement chronicles the heist of the American dream’s secure retirement by the financial elite and is a very important section of the book, says Steele, who spoke with the AFL-CIO about the retirement crisis. Steele says there is another number we should pay attention to: $17,686. That’s the median value of 401(k) accounts in 2011. For most working people, the amount in their 401(k) account would pay them less than $80 a month for life.

“What’s happening with retirement is almost parallel to what you see happening in other parts of the economy,” says Steele.

The elite has its agenda to eliminate pensions with the shift to 401(k)s, which cost companies less. Now, there’s a revenue stream for Wall Street and an obligation shift to people with little or no experience understanding how to deal with their own retirement issues….This is typical of all the other things the economy elite has been doing for decades with deregulation, unrestricted free trade and tax cuts—these things are all related.

“In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the amount of workers with access to pensions was significantly rising,” says Steele. “We fully underestimated the speed in which the downturn would occu, and how Congress went along and encouraged it.”

Barlett and Steele write that the shift from defined-benefit pension plans to 401(k)s began in the 1980s. Companies realized 401(k)s would substantially reduce corporate costs. Workers were told that pensions no longer made sense and were outdated since people moved around from job to job. The 401(k) was marketed as more “portable.”

Steele says 401(k)s were engineered by corporations as another way for the wealthy executives to set aside money. They were never intended to be a principal retirement plan, only a supplement.

“Once corporate America got on to this, the idea took root,” says Steele. “The entire obligation shifted to the employees.”

Congress ignored the concerns raised by trade unions and other pension rights organizations. And the consequences are dire for middle- and lower-income workers.

“This is so typical of what has been happening over the last two to three decades,” says Steele. “This is the slow, steady erosion of economic security Americans had (or thought they had)….Now economic pundits, corporate folks and Wall Street people are saying people just have to work longer, in part because retirement plans now in place will not provide much security to people as they get older.”

Barlett and Steele feature stories of average people who did everything right (saved, worked hard) but are still living on the edge of poverty because of policies that enhance the rich at the expense of everyone else.

Over and over again, people thought they had something good. They were working hard and then, through no fault of their own, lost it all. Most people we talked to in the book are employed.

People thought it was something they had done to lose their job or benefits….They didn’t realize it was part of a broader pattern. There are great swaths of working people who are affected and we think it’s our fault. For most of these people, it’s not their fault, it’s just the way policy has been organized. Systematically dismantling pensions and retirement is the perfect example.

With the decline of pensions, it’s even more important to strengthen, not cut, Social Security benefits. Although the country dodged a bullet in 2005, when Bush’s plan for Social Security privatization fizzled, Steele says we still need to be vigilant to protect our benefits from the Wall Street casino.

Don and I make this point that the 2008 recession wouldn’t look a whole lot different from the Great Depression if we didn’t have Social Security and Medicare because there was no safety net then.

The economic elite, says Steele, attack Social Security because it’s a large pool of money for Wall Street to play with.

Nobody should kid themselves that they’re not going to come back and try to implement some parts of that [privatization]….The amount of money at stake is too good and that’s all they care about—access to that money, not American workers.

You can purchase “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on October 7, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora recently joined the AFL-CIO as the blog/social Media editor. Before that, she was a Social Security and Medicare advocate for a national seniors’ organization.

Older Workers Confront Cold New World in Harsh Job Market

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Roger BybeeLeon Burzynski, president of the labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans in Wisconsin, is someone who appreciates the steps that Barack Obama has taken to bring the economy back from the brink of disaster. But he remains deeply concerned about the plight of workers aged 50 to 64. These workers—eager to work and too young to afford retirement—remain marginalized in an economy where cash-laden corporations are still reluctant to retrain full-time employees.

“It’s a dark time for older workers,” said Burzynski. “I don’t see the economy coming around for older people who want to work.”

With hiring in the private sector slow and the Republicans systematically blocking each and every stimulus measure, the prospects for older workers are bleak indeed. At a point in their lives when they expected to be making their peak earnings, this group of workers finds themselves navigating a complex minefield of problems without significant social support.

JOB INSECURITY: While the pace of layoffs has slowed considerably, corporations continue to reduce their workforces unpredictably and to send both manufacturing and white-collar professional work overseas.

PAY INSTABILITY: Even though profits have achieved record levels for major corporations, firms like General Electric are imposing pay cuts of as much as 45 percent on long-term workers. The wage-cutting wave that began immediately after the Wall Street meltdown is persisting.

REDUCED SAVINGS: Falling wages have reduced the ability of Americans to save. Meanwhile, dropping home values have been a central factor in shrinking the net worth of American families, reported The Los Angeles Times:

The typical American family lost nearly 40% of its wealth from 2007 to 2010 as the Great Recession reduced household net worth to a level not seen since the early 1990s.
The net worth of the median U.S. family — one with an equal number of families richer and poorer — fell to $77,300 in 2010 from $126,400 three years earlier, after adjusting for inflation, the Federal Reserve said in a new report.

Among working families, “most folks have all their net worth tied up in their homes,” Burzynski says.

LONG STRETCHES OF UNEMPLOYMENT
When laid off, older workers face especially long periods of unemployment, the Urban Institute found:

Job loss during the Great Recession is upending retirement savings plans for many older workers. Fewer than a quarter of workers age 50 and older who lost their jobs between mid-2008 and the end of 2009 found work within 12 months.

Another study revealed, “The median duration of unemployment for those 55 and older was 34.1 weeks in May, according to the Labor Department, in contrast to 22 weeks for all jobless people over 16.”

Prolonged periods of unemployment are remarkably stressful to both physical and mental health, with one noted British doctor equating the effects of long-term joblessness with the death of a spouse.

FORCED TO OPT FOR SOCIAL SECURUTY: With job-hunting stretching out and exhausting older workers’ savings, many older workers find that they need to opt for Social Security before age 66. This means a permanent reduction of 20 to 30 percent in benefits for the rest of their lives, but some find themselves with no other alternative, The New York Times reported:

Even as most Americans are delaying retirement to bolster their savings accounts, the recession and its protracted aftermath have forced many older people who are out of work to draw Social Security much earlier than they had planned.

According to an analysis by Steve Goss, chief actuary for the Social Security Administration, about 200,000 more people filed initial claims in 2009 and 2010 than the agency had predicted before the recession and he said the trend most likely continued in 2011 and 2012, though that is harder to quantify. The most likely reason is joblessness.

TRADITIONAL PENISONS DISAPPEARING FAST: For decades, Americans have relied on pensions that provided a predictable source of income in combination with Social Security and savings. But various Individual Retirement Account and 401(k) plans—infinitely cheaper for employers—have taken their place. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson point out in their excellent book, The Great Risk Shift, “As recently as twenty-five years ago, more than 80 percent of large and medium-sized firms offered a defined–benefit plan; today, less than a third do.”

The funds being accumulated in IRA-type accounts are hardly sufficient to provide a secure and fulfilling retirement, says Burzysnki. “The average IRA contains only $55,000 to $60,000—that’s not enough for what I what I call a quality retirement.”

The lack of support for workers aged 50 and over is exacerbated by the unpredictable circumstances that can lead some to retire, often without the necessary savings and a solid plan. As Hacker and Pierson point out, “Four in ten retired workers today report that they left their jobs earlier than planned because of layoffs health problems, or sick family members.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on June 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. His e-mail address is winterbybee@gmail.com.

Support Grows for Striking Verizon Workers’ Fight for Middle-Class Jobs

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Image: Mike HallThe huge crowd outside the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, D.C., Saturday wasn’t there for a basketball game or concert. They came to tell Verizon to stop its attack on middle-class jobs.

The Verizon Center demonstration and dozens and dozens of other actions at Verizon worksites and Verizon Wireless stores are part of the growing support for the 45,000 Communications Workers of America (CWA) and Electrical Workers (IBEW) members forced on strike by Verizon Aug. 6.

Photo credit: Scott ReynoldsThe company, with $32.5 billion in revenue in the past three years, is demanding $1 billion in concessions from workers, which amounts to $20,000 per Verizon worker per year. While talks resumed last week, those demands remain on the table. Says CWA Communications Director Candice Johnson:

If wealthy companies like Verizon can continue to cut working families’ pay and benefits, we will never have an economic recovery in this country. This is a fight for all middle-class working families.

Verizon’s demands include outsourcing jobs overseas, gutting pension security, eliminating benefits for workers injured on the job, eliminating job security, slashing paid sick leave and raising health care costs.

CWA filed unfair labor practice charges against Verizon Aug. 12 with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), charging the company with refusal to bargain in good faith.

Union workers and community allies are joining striking CWA and IBEW members on the picket lines. Barbara Smith of CWA Local 1109 In Brooklyn, N.Y., told Labor Notes that when Verizon Wireless pickets are up:

pedestrians stop and thank us because they understand that this fight is about more than Verizon.

While Verizon is demanding that workers take home less, it paid its top five executives more than $258 million over the past four years, including $80.8 million for its former CEO Ivan Seidenberg. Friday night, more than 500 CWA, IBEW members and their allies held a candlelight vigil outside Seidenberg’ West Nyack, N.Y., home.

They carried a coffin to symbolize the death of the middle class. CWA Local 1101 member Ron Canterino, told reporters:

The middle class is dying here, and we’re here to be together as one class, one people—whether it’s union or nonunion working people.

Here are some other actions you can take to support the strikers:

  • Find a local picket line to support here.
  • Download leaflets here.
  • “Like” the strikers on Facebook here and change your Facebook and/or Twitter profile picture in solidarity here.
  • Click here to demand that Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam value employees’ work and share his corporation’s success with those who make it possible.
  • Click here for a list of picket sites in the New York and New Jersey area. `
  • Click here to sign and Tweet an act.ly petition demanding Verizon drop its outrageous concessionary demands.
  • To Tweet about the strike, use the hashtag #verizonstrike and feel free to direct to @VZLaborfacts.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Blog on August 15, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent.

Target Wall Street Greed, Not Public Employees

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010
Credit: Joe Kekeris

Credit: Joe Kekeris

Too often when economic times get tough, scapegoats are found in the wrong places. Wall Street greed and double-dealing sparked much of the nation’s recent near-financial collapse, yet many in the chattering classes instead are attacking public employees for this rolling recession.

Economist Dean Baker puts the situation in perspective:

Fifteen million people are not out of work because of generous public employee pensions. Nor is this the reason that millions of homeowners are underwater in their mortgages and facing the loss of their home. In fact, if we cut all public employee pensions in half tomorrow, it would not create a single job or save anyone’s house. The reason that millions of people are suffering is a combination of Wall Street greed and incredible economic mismanagement.

Even as a consensus is emerging among economists that the United States should put job growth ahead of deficit cuts, a new study focused on New England finds that the region no longer can afford to spend scarce resources on tax credits and other business giveaways. Instead, it needs to channel economic development efforts to rebuilding neglected infrastructure and improving education for people at all levels. “Prioritizing Approaches to Economic Development in New England” provides

ample evidence that infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, energy transmission systems, drinking water, and the like) and education are effective approaches for creating jobs and generating economic growth.

The study, by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, finds the New England states have too long viewed funding for public services and economic development as competing interests—and that’s a false dichotomy. Sounds like the study can apply to the rest of the country as well.

Demonizing the public sector harms the U.S. middle class, writes Drum Major Institute for Public Policy (DMI) Research Director Amy Traub, who reminds us how fundamental the jobs they do are to our everyday lives:

It’s easy to lose sight of the other ways that a strong public sector supports our economy. Middle-class Americans and the businesses they work for rely on good schools, clean and safe streets, and high quality public services and infrastructure. In so doing, they depend on the dedicated teachers, police, firefighters, librarians, sanitation workers, parks employees, and support staff that keep states and cities running.

States and cities face very real fiscal challenges, but the cause is falling tax revenue due to the deepest recession in decades—not excessive spending or lavish compensation for public workers.

Further, Traub has a recommendation for Congress, some Democrats included:

Trashing our middle class in an effort to cut costs is short sighted. Downgrading the middle-class pay and benefits of public workers only speeds their erosion in the private sector, undermining everyone who works for a living….Rather than attacking public pensions that afford retirees a middle-class standard of living, [lawmakers] should be thinking about how to increase retirement security for millions of private-sector employees with meager savings.

As Progressive States Network points out, extremist anti-worker organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council have been trying to gut public employee pensions for years—and they are using the recession as a public relations platform.

There is no crisis in most state retirement systems, even according to the numbers of the researchers demanding state leaders take unneeded action to cut the incomes of retirees.  And despite the hype from a few carefully selected anecdotes of retirees gaming pension systems, the reality is that the overwhelming number of public employees receive pretty bare-bones benefits, in some cases not enough even to keep them out of poverty.

Corporate backed anti-worker groups are the winners when the public taps into public-employee blame game. Wall Street is another big winner. The CEOs of Big Banks and the financial industry are happy to see the finger pointed at public employees. It means America’s workers are fighting each other and not united in targeting the real culprit of our economic misfortunes.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW Blog.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

The Terrible Public Pension Threat

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Natasha ChartIt’s time for a class war over public union pensions. So says Ron Lieber, writing in the New York Times. Okay, let’s rumble. What’s the score, so far?

Despite defined benefit (DB) pensions, like the ones public employees get, being more economically efficient [pdf] and offering better returns, private employers have mostly switched to 401(k) plans, or defined contribution (DC) plans [pdf], because they’re cheaper. Between 1979 and 2001, the portion of the workforce covered by defined benefit pensions dropped by half. By 2008, only 20 percent of private workers had such a pension.

Businesses saved a lot of money by either switching to low cost 401(k) plans or dumping their pension obligations on the government [pdf]. Did they use their savings to create jobs? Not lately. These days, businesses are firing more people than they need to and sitting on the cash.

If recent history is any guide, those business savings still won’t go to average employee wages, which have been stagnant since the 1970s when union membership started declining to its current 12.3 percent of the labor force. Since 1979, extra savings have gone to the richest 1% of Americans who’ve seen their income go up 281 percent, with CEO pay going up 298 percent as the value of the minimum wage dropped 9.3 percent in value, and the pay of manufacturing and maintenance workers had gone up by only 4.3 percent, as of 2005.

Clearly, the investor class won that round.

The rich were positioned to get richer, even during this recession. It isn’t that there’s no money, it’s that money has been steadily taken out of circulation to be uselessly hoarded by the top one percent of income earners. And now, with government revenues starved by tax cuts for the rich and wage declines for most everyone else, the proposed solution is to break pension obligations to the few people who still have them.

Funny how big a threat pensions are supposed to be, now that they’re so rare. Ha ha.

“Who took our pensions and what do we have to do to get them back?” – Rep. Alan Grayson at Netroots Nation, July 24, 2010

You can see how it would have been harder 50 years ago to attack pensions, as Lieber does, as an unjustified, “terrifying” and “titanic” waste of resources. More people would have agreed with Rep. Grayson’s statement last month that, “everyone who works in America for 30 years should have a pension,” because more of them had decent pensions of their own.

Now, pensions are almost surprising. And about that, Jonathan Cohn had the best next question, emphasis mine:

But ask yourself the same question you should have been asking [during the debate about auto worker pensions]: To what extent is the problem that the retirement benefits for unionized public sector workers have become too generous? And to what extent is the problem that retirement benefits for everybody else have become too stingy?

For their age and education level, public employees receiving pensions make less than comparable private sector workers. They may even be excluded from Social Security benefits, as Dean Baker points out, adding that they tend to make no more than $40,000 to $50,000 per year and that the shortfall in their pension funds comes to less than two percent of government spending over the next 30 years.

One thing that about half of all public employees do for their not-very-princely salaries is educate children. On that score, it’s hard to argue with Paul Krugman’s statement that, “Everything we know about economic growth says that a well-educated population and high-quality infrastructure are crucial.” Not crucial enough to get them 281 percent pay raises, but crucial.

At present, 62 percent of US jobs now require some sort of special training beyond high school and in a decade, that might go up to 75 percent of jobs. Maybe some of these requirements are excessive, but it’s weird to hear anyone say we need less education.

Cut teachers’ lifetime compensation and, one way or another, less education is exactly what we’ll get.

And as for complaining about the pensions of all the other people who make less than their experience and education might be worth, our public police, fire department, emergency, maintenance, construction and engineering workers, you might as well come out in opposition to law and order and in favor of all the trains being late.

The pension alarmists would have us believe that the debate is about whether the public can afford to honor promises to retirees, which is bad enough. Though what it’s actually about is whether ordinary taxpayers should have to either pay for private schools, private bodyguards and private groundskeepers in private real estate developments, or accept that their cities and towns are going to keep falling apart around them because it isn’t anyone’s job to hold them together anymore.

Which is nothing less than a threat to price the average taxpayer out of all the benefits of civilization so that the top one percent of income earners won’t have to suffer the return of Clinton-era tax rates.

About the Author: Natasha Chart has been blogging about the environment, social justice and various other political topics since 2002. She currently writes at MyDD.com and works as an online marketing consultant in Philadelphia.

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