Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Unions Gear Up to Oppose Pension Changes

Author: Chris Wetterich
Title: Unions gear up to oppose pension changes 
Publication: The State Journal-Register
Link: http://tinyurl.com/74pxko6
Date Published: May 15, 2012

After weeks of relative quiet as they attempted to negotiate with legislative leaders and the governor on restructuring the state’s ailed pension systems, public employee unions want their members to tell their legislators to block benefit changes they believe are unfair.

Labor has grown weary of Gov. Pat Quinn’s efforts to rally business leaders behind his ideas and his use of agency directorsand state government resources to argue that basic state government functions will suffer grievously unless something is done about pensions.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employeesposted links and telephone numbers on their websites that allow members to be connected directly to their lawmakers. The campaign is an effort to counterpunch at Quinn’s efforts and remind lawmakers of the thousands of public employees who are their constituents.

In addition to the telephone calls, the unions are organizing demonstrations atlegislators' district offices on Wednesday.

The unions also fear legislative leaders and the governor will abandon negotiations and a bill will be rammed through this week.

The unions were caught flatfooted in 2010 when a bill changing pension benefits for teachers, state workers, university employees, legislators and judges passed through both legislative chambers in less than a day and was later signed by Gov. Pat Quinn.

The IFT, IEA and AFSCME say they have offered concessions at the negotiating table, although they decline to detail those concessions or an overall union plan to address the state’s $85 billion in debt. The three unions and other labor groups are working in tandem under the umbrella of the We Are One Illinois coalition. The IFT said the proposal would cost members more money and save the state billions of dollars.

Those familiar with the talks say the unions have also talked about finding new revenue. Any tax increase to address the pension problem is viewed as dead on arrival by most lawmakers. Much of the 2011 income tax increase, which increased the individual income tax rate from 3 percent to 5 percent has been eaten up by increases in pension and Medicaid spending.

“Despite our efforts, some lawmakers and the governor continue to try and solve the problems they created by placing the entire pension burden on the backs of workers – that is unfair and unacceptable,” the IFT wrote in an e-mail to its members. “IFT members and other public employees have faithfully made their payments to the systems, while the state has shirked its payment obligations for decades. The state’s irresponsibility has created the problem we face. To now ask teachers and other public employees to pay off the state’s entire bill is simply wrong.”

Quinn has proposed increasing employee contributions by 3 percentage points, reducing the annual cost-of-living increases from 3 percent annually compounded to the lesser of 3 percent or inflation and increasing the retirement age to 67 years old. He has estimated his proposal would save at least $65 billion, although he hasn’t provided the numbers to back that up.

In its e-mail IFT sounded a negative note about the status of negotiations.

“Top IFT leaders spent the past several weeks in an honest attempt to determine how public workers can be part of a solution to Illinois’ pension challenges. Unfortunately, it’s clear that legislative leaders and the governor are now working to quickly introduce and pass an unfair, unacceptable bill that will severely harm the retirement security of hundreds of thousands of public workers,” the union’s website says. 

“At the very least, lawmakers and the public should be given adequate time to review the details of any legislation political leaders will try to pass in order to fully consider how it will impact our workers and Illinois communities.”

Chris Wetterich can be reached at 788-1523.

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