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Opinion: Unions Seek to Reframe Chicago Pension Debate

Union coalition seeks to shift terms of pension debate to real-world outcomes

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Opinion: Unions Seek to Reframe Chicago Pension Debate

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It’s an age-old adage: How you frame a political debate goes a long way to determining whether or not you’re likely to win.

In the coming battle over how to solve Chicago’s worst-in-the-nation pension crisis, it’s a lesson a number of unions have taken to heart.

In Illinois and elsewhere, the debate over pension often comes down to one simple idea, and one simple solution. Since there isn't enough money in the pension system to pay everybody what was promised, many argue, whatever promises were made to retirees in the past will simply have to be broken.

After all, the argument goes, there’s simply not enough money to pay everyone, right?

For their part, a coalition of unions under the banner of We Are One Chicago is rejecting that idea, and, in doing so, is attempting to reframe the debate around Chicago’s looming pension crisis.

It’s a smart move because, as they say, if you play on your opponent’s field, you also play by his rules.

And in Chicago, those rules go like this: the city’s broke, the pension system is broke, the mayor and his allies say there’s nothing we can do, so shut up.

Put slightly differently, the argument is perhaps best explained by Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, who recently called on Chicago Public School teachers to give up some future benefits to help reform the city’s troubled pension system by warning that if they don't, “thousands and thousands” of layoffs are possible.

Cullerton argued that as Chicago Public Schools must make a $613 million payment to their pension fund by June 30, the bulk of that money will likely come from drastic teacher layoffs and dramatic increases in class size without a new reform package.

It’s all part and parcel of the conversation around pensions designed to ensure that whatever the solution, future benefits for retirees are cut.

It ignores critical questions, such as how past non-payments and underpayments by politicians helped create the problem, how some unions have been negotiating with Mayor Emanuel for months and even years with little success, or how cutting benefits for retirees means placing a drag on growth in a state already struggling to survive economically.

We Are One Chicago consists of nine labor groups and represents nearly 140,000 city workers, from cops to nurses to teachers. Leading the way is the Chicago Teachers Union, who recently released a report entitled “The Great Chicago Pension Caper: Neighborhood Destabilization in an Age of Austerity”.

By examining the real-world impact of proposed benefit cuts, the report—and the group’s efforts—seeks to move the debate away from abstract handwringing over “what must be done” to “who will suffer and why,” while also making it clear breaking pension promises can hurt more than just retirees.

Quite frankly, it’s an argument that has to be made. For too long, the debate around public service pensions in America has focused exclusively on the dollars and cents and too little on the real-life effect decision made by politicians has on real, actual families and communities affected by the outcome.

Need proof? Take a look at today's op-ed in the State Journal-Register by Republican lawmaker Jim Durkin of Western Springs and Marc Levine, a former investment manager who now consults on pension issues.

In 500 words extolling the need for a “direct contribution”, otherwise known as a “DC” or 401(k)-style, plan to help save the troubled Illinois pension system, Durkin and Levin point exclusively to benefits they say the state and retirees can't afford to turn down:

The advantages to the workers who choose the DC plan are clear — they no longer are exposed to the risk of large future benefit cuts if Illinois is unable to adopt additional necessary pension reforms.

Illinois’ state finances benefit greatly as well. Each worker who moves into the DC program reduces the funding risk inherent in expanding the already unaffordable and unpredictable pension system.

What’s left out of the conversation, of course, is the very real risk that by placing a worker’s retirement plan in private pension account run by Wall Street, retirement savings could disappear the moment the market crashed, leaving retirees with little or nothing to show for years of hard work and savings.

Poof. Gone. That very real risk isn' even mentioned by those seekign to tell public sector retireees what's best for them. 

Because, in the end, that’s how the conversation often goes when a pension system in crisis is being discussed. Someone’s going to have to suffer, and if they would just learn to be quiet about it and accept it as inevitable, we’ll all be better off.

Thankfully, that's not a conversation the unions in Chicago want to have. 
 

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