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Rhode Island – Members Prepare for Pension Fight

With the prospect of new pension cutbacks looming, Council 94 and other Rhode Island public sector unions created the Rhode Island Retirement Security Coalition to protect their members’ retirement security. The coalition will make their voices heard throughout the state by lobbying legislators and attending pension advisory board meetings and legislative sessions.

The state’s 51,000 public workers and retirees, who already have experienced three rounds of pension cuts during the past six years, are threatened by right-wing lawmakers who want to further slash their retirement benefits. The state Legislature is expected to consider pension changes during a special session this fall.

“When it comes to pensions, Rhode Island is a bellwether state. We’re the canary in the coal mine,” says Council 94 Pres. J. Michael Downey, who was appointed in June to be one of 12 members of a state pension advisory group. “Whatever the General Assembly does to state workers here will spread across the country. That’s why we must prevail in this fight.”

The unions contend the failure of the state to make two required payments into the system during the 1990s, which cost more than $100 million, and changes in actuarial assumptions, put the system on shaky ground. “Our state and municipal workers have made their pension contributions every single week, year after year,” says Downey. “We’ve already paid for them. We’ve always done what we were supposed to do and now we’re being punished.”

“The treasurer and governor are coming at this from the wrong direction,” says Council 94 Exec. Dir. Ken DeLorenzo. “They’re talking about cutting our benefits when they should be looking at increasing revenues. The top tax rates are half of what they were in 1980. We should be asking the super-rich to pay their fair share.”

Last year, Council 94 and other unions representing state workers and teachers sued the state, challenging that year’s pension changes that hurt workers’ promised retirement benefits. The suit also challenged 2008 cuts to the pension system. The state attempted to have the case thrown out before trial. In September, a Superior Court judge ruled against the state’s request, rejecting the state’s stance that it could “significantly alter or completely terminate a public employee’s pension benefits at any time, even just one day, before retirement.”