Pension Cuts Deep

Posted on August 6, 2010 by

I’m not sure we can call government worker pensions a “hot button” issue.  It lacks the immediacy, clarity and simple polarity of, say, abortion or gay marriage.

But I guarantee that the controversy over retirement pay for millions of city, state and federal workers will fuel ongoing political debate, possibly for the rest of this decade.

And it will be divisive.   

Sure, republican Meg Whitman, candidate for California Governor, is attacking public employee union benefits.

But a recent Los Angeles Times piece outlined the pension crisis in a nightmarish report from that city’s administrative officer, a subordinate of LA’s labor-friendly mayor Villaraigosa.

Now I want to take a step back and highlight a milestone which most of us missed.

Earlier this year, for the first time ever, the number of unionized government workers in the U.S. surpassed the number of private-sector workers.

This was terrible news:

Fewer than 7 ½ million Americans working for nongovernment employers belong to unions.  That means that 13 out of 14 workers in the private economy are nonunion.

That also means that most of these workers are living in another universe from government employees with guaranteed lifetime retirement payments amounting to half or more of their annual salaries.

How can anyone expect Americans who occupy this vast nonunion labor pool to rally on behalf of unionized public employee “elites?”

And how will struggling working families feel about their tax dollars going toward ensuring a secure retirement for a small group of “privileged” workers.

You get the picture.

Beginning in the 1960s, campaigns across the country to organize teachers, firefighters, social workers, street cleaners, bus drivers and more were, in many cases, noble and heroic efforts.  But they were a walk in the park compared to what was to happen in the corporate world – where deindustrialization and union-busting would become everyday activities.

So now when school districts, cities, counties and states face complicated questions around budget solvency, pension liabilities and their “obligation” to its workforce, public employees find themselves politically isolated.

Elected democrats often favored and helped cut the path for government union organizing because it created a reliable constituency for policy battles and elections.  But many of those same democrats would barely lift a finger to enable private-sector unionization because that would pit them against their pals at the chamber of commerce.

Government workers and their unions are running head-on into their own version of “give-backs” and “take-aways” that characterized the corporate anti-union warfare of the 1980s and 1990s.

And with an ever-shrinking cadre of working-class allies from the private sector, the question is who is left to take up their cause.

Comments (9)


  1. Alabor Stalwart says:

    Antonio is no longer labor-friendly. He hasn’t been for years.

  2. Frank Stricker says:

    Stalwart is right. Antonio V. has not been a labor guy for years. Just ask teachers, for whose union he once workes.
    # 2: so what is the best way to fend off the attack on public pensions? Should we just collapse or develop ideas that broaden pensions for others too? At least in theory.

  3. Good question! Increasingly, the trend has been to neutralize unions not merely from the outside, as with Ronald Reagan’s notorious union-busting, but also from within.

    Labor is often its own worst enemy. By identifying its objectives, and its sense of self-worth with management, labor essentially writes itself out of the benefits it might otherwise receive.

  4. The pension crisis will create social, political and economic consequences for decades and it will not be pretty. Elderly people living under bridges, gated communities subjected to ugly confrontations by those dienfranchised citizens on the outside, Congress people chatised by voters for their fsilure to deal with retirement income security for the Baby Boom generation and people running out of money during short retirements.

  5. Steven Lee says:

    One thing I would like to focus on is the California State Teachers Retirement System. (Calstrs)

    As a teacher, I contribute 8 % of my salary to Calstrs. I do not contribute to Social Security. Many non-union or union employees feel that the pension is some sort of handout, it is not. There are contributions by the employee.

    Many also do not realize that college faculty members like myself who teach in Career and Technical edcation worked in their specific industry for at least 7 years (many have more time) to even be able to work at the College. (State law) These faculty members contributed to the Social Security System only now to have their SSI benifits reduced at retirement because they will recieve a pension from Calstrs. This was the contribution made by the individual, and the individual is then being punished because he or she chose to teach their trade to others.

    My last point is this. I like many teachers around the world sacrificed time in their respected colleges and universities to gain degrees so that we may become teachers. It so happenes that many teachers are represented by labor unions because they need to have equity in salary and benfits. They are the people who are sharing their knowledge so that others may benift, find gainful employment, and have a better quality of life.

    The individual I want teaching my children is not the person who is glued to the sofa collecting a handout, but those who sacrificed so that others may succeed. Leave the pensions alone.

  6. Salvador Sanchez says:

    Whitman’s message that government employees’ pensions are overly unfair resonates very well in the private sector. Sadly, I don’t see public employees’ unions challenging it.

  7. The professor has got it right. Lou as always, your insight and contribution to the dialogue of the labor historians is exactly perceptive and flawless. Trendy alternative papers, which of course have been bought or only following the wind of the fascist mucho gusto… are portraying union pension fund bashers as American heroes.

    That’s right, we have all f…ed ourselves by voting for the fascists, the only hold outs- the government workers. Hey, lets hang them too, no, no, I mean, lets f… them next. Hahr… hahr… hahr…

    SEIU pretend lefty’s, could they really fight? I don’t think so. Federal Unions? highly unlikely.

    “They stole our money, and then repaid the banks with our future taxes. Now, they want to stop us from expanding the economy so that their ill gotten gains will not suffer from inflation. The bank robbers suddenly care about inflation, government workers pensions and any thing that does not allow the few and the rich and powerful to have all the money and all the power.”

  8. deborah says:

    Really great piece of important commentary. How can we stop this ball from rolling?

  9. i think that gay marriage should be allowed in certain states but not in other states -.’

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