Issues / Legislation » Pension Security

Report from the Public Pension Leadership Meeting

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Working people across the country face an onslaught of attacks from the right, during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Public service workers have become a target, in particular, our benefits, our pay, our job security and even our work. And the right will try to roll back and eventually dismantle the pensions that AFSCME members have worked to build for decades.

That’s why on December 15, 2010, AFSCME activists, local leaders and retirees met with key experts and allies. The goal was to develop strategies and tools to defend our modest pensions against this unprecedented assault.

AFSCME Pres. Gerald W. McEntee opened the conference by laying out the case for pensions as an important component of our members’ compensation for a lifetime of service to their communities. He made it clear that we have to stop those who target working people in their tracks.

“The more momentum the anti-worker politicians gain, the more their ideas take hold, the more is at risk for all working families,” McEntee said.

More than 200 leaders gathered to share best practices, learn about the challenges we face and develop innovative messages and strategies.

“We’re working in partnership with affiliates around the country to wage full-scale battleground campaigns – to defend our pensions, to fight budget cuts and privatization, to protect collective bargaining and our political power,” said AFSCME Sec.-Treas. Lee A. Saunders.

Participants had an opportunity to learn key details on how pensions work, the challenges they face and how best to respond to those challenges. Steve Kreisberg, associate director of AFSCME’s Department of Research and Collective Bargaining Services, offered insights into the problems facing pensions, which largely stem from the stock market crash and its impacts on investments, and from the failure of some politicians to properly fund pensions.

Kreisberg said that while the challenges facing public employee pensions are real, “the right is distorting the numbers to make it look worse.” He detailed how right-wing ideologues who want to destroy pensions are offering “solutions that fail,” while AFSCME can offer real solutions to ensure pension solvency and help build retirement security.

Attendees shared strategies, ideas and lessons from their own efforts in beating back attacks.

“What has been important in our approach to addressing this problem is our ability to build a broad coalition with other organizations…understanding that we can aggressively fight together on these issues and still maintain our ability to individually advocate for our members,” said Sherryl Gordon, International vice president and executive director of AFSCME New Jersey Council 1.

Scott Wasserman of Colorado WINS, an affiliate of AFSCME, SEIU and AFT, summarized their state’s winning formula:

“The way to really beat back attacks on pensions is to start early and have a strong, proactive media presence. We were able to get a sense of what Coloradans thought about pensions, understand what would resonate with the public and make sure our voice was heard in the media.”

Details were shared on actions taken by state legislatures toward their pensions over the past two years; the presentation was led by Gerri Madrid-Davis of the National Public Pension Coalition.

Stuart Leibowitz, president of the Retirees Association of District Council 37 New York City, made the case that most attacks on public employee benefits are not really about saving money, they’re about conservative ideology and misplaced priorities.

“Our benefits are a tiny part of overall spending. When we’re criticized for all of the money spent on pensions and they say there isn’t enough money, it’s not that they don’t have the money. It’s about how they want to spend it,” he said.

The meeting included an in-depth discussion about the public’s understanding of pensions, messaging and how we can most effectively talk about pensions. Here are some key points to use in conversations about the importance of pensions and why they should be preserved:

  • Public employees in many cases pay a significant portion of the costs of their pensions for modest benefits;
  • It’s the politicians who have failed to fulfill their obligations. Employees should not be punished for the politicians’ failure;
  • Approximately 80 percent of the cost of pensions is covered by the employees’ contributions and earnings from investments. When run properly, pension funds are a very cost-effective way of providing retirement benefits.

AFL-CIO Pres. Richard Trumka connected the specific discussion of how to fight back against attacks on public service workers’ pensions to the larger battle for retirement security for all workers, saying: “The answer isn’t to knock down public employees by demanding pay cuts and give-backs, but to lift up all workers.”

Trumka called on the pension conference participants to work for retirement security for all, calling it a concept that “was once understood to be part of the American Dream – what all of us deserved if we worked hard and played by the rules.”

He pledged to work with AFSCME members and working people across the nation to build real retirement security for all “that reflects American values – reward for work, compassion and fairness, foresight and prudent conservative management.”

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