July 15, 2024

Public Unions Take On Boss to Win Big Pensions

Then Jim Righeimer, a conservative activist and real estate developer, jumped into the race last year.

The city was on the road to insolvency, he warned, because public employee unions had pressured politicians into handing over generous salaries and pensions. The police chief received $298,000 a year in total compensation, Mr. Righeimer noted. The deputy fire chief had retired with a pension of more than $182,000 a year.

City workers weren’t fans of Mr. Righeimer, who had been critical of public unions for years. Local police and firefighter groups started mailing leaflets and towing a billboard around town attacking him, implying he had skipped out on numerous debts. Public employees spent more than $100,000 opposing him, and six unions from neighboring regions spent another $33,000 endorsing his opponents.

“They try to drag you through the mud so bad that everyone else says, ‘I don’t ever want these guys as enemies, I’ll just leave them alone,’ ” said Mr. Righeimer, who still managed to win a council seat.

Costa Mesa, population 110,000, is California in miniature. For years, public employee unions across the state have often used their influence — sometimes behind the scenes but occasionally with public, hardball campaigns — to push for improved worker pay and benefits. They have exercised power beyond their numbers by donating money to lawmakers, burnishing candidates’ credentials with endorsements and supplying volunteers during elections.

 Public employee unions are hardly the only group involved in bare-knuckles politics. Businesses lobby fiercely and executives make hefty campaign donations.

But public workers have a unique relationship with elected officials, because government employees are effectively negotiating with bosses whom they can campaign to vote out of office if they don’t get what they want. Private unions, in contrast, don’t usually have the power to fire their members’ employers.

Even in recent years, as economic troubles have worsened, benefits for some government workers have grown. In 2008, for instance, lifeguards in Laguna Beach started receiving increased retirement benefits as the state’s economy began to slow. The next year, the town’s chief lifeguard retired at age 57, with a $113,000-a-year pension after 36 years on the job.

Lawmakers in both political parties have often acceded to unions’ requests to avoid political confrontations or to curry favor. They have pushed difficult choices into the future.

But now, with the expenses of past promises coming due, the cost of deferred decision-making is mounting. California alone needs to begin devoting an additional $28 billion a year to state and local public pensions to remedy an existing shortfall, according to one nonpartisan study — and nationwide, estimates of such deficits reach into the trillions over the next few decades.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” said Tony Oliveira, who as a supervisor in Kings County, in central California, voted to increase employees’ benefits, and now is on the board of the state’s enormous pension fund. “This was probably the worst public policy decision in the state’s history. But everyone kept saying there was plenty of money. And no one wants to be responsible if all the cops quit to get paid more in the next town.”

Public employee unions, in their defense, say politicians have unfairly made them into simplistic bogeymen, responsible for problems that have myriad causes. Not all government workers receive generous pensions, they note. A public worker enrolled in the state’s largest pension fund who retired in 2008 with more than 30 years of service received a pension of $66,828 a year, on average, and a retiree with 20 to 25 years of service received around $34,872. Public workers who retire with fewer years on the job receive even less.

Moreover, unions note that they have improved millions of lives and are standing up for workers, who are mostly middle class, at a time when many families are losing ground financially.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=11fe2371fc185a2d32ad486930360e94

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