Selling Pension Reform: The No-Blame Game
When traveling the state and talking to various union groups, it’s understandable–politically, yes, but also pragmatically–that General Treasurer Gina Raimondo is refraining from playing the blame game (well, except for various “politicians” of the past). She needs unions on board to make reform happen and if the rank and file can understand the scope of the problem and be persuaded that there is no malice in reform, then perhaps union leadership will not resist. So, we have this:
[S]he stressed that politics, not public employees, are to blame for a “broken” pension system that is endangering the security of their retirements, while also threatening to crush taxpayers with billions of dollars of debt.
“If there’s anything to blame, it’s politics,” Raimondo told more than 300 members of Local 580 of the Service Employees International Union gathered at the Cranston Portuguese Club off Elmwood Avenue. “For decades, politics has trumped honest, financial accounting.
“The fault does not lie with you. …You have done nothing wrong. You have played by the rules,” she said. “The fault lies with a poorly designed [pension] system that has been faltering for decades.”
She’s correct in that union members did nothing explicitly wrong in paying into the pension system crafted and promised by their leadership and mostly Democratic politicians. But she’s also glossing over things. After all, union members did have a role to play in the “politics” she condemns. They are, at the least, implicitly responsible for the current pension mess for supporting and electing the union leadership and Democratic politicians that crafted this fiasco. The same leaders who don’t necessarily play by the same rules.:
Both of the SEIU’s national pension plans issued “critical status letters” to their members in 2009—the Pension Protection Act requires such letters to be issued when funds can cover less than 65 percent of their obligations. The SEIU, however, maintains a separate pension plan for its national officers that was funded at 98.3 percent, according to the latest data.
Or actively undermine Raimondo’s proposals while standing right next to her:
Frank Flynn, the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, told his retirees that the potential pension cuts that Raimondo outlined a day earlier, including a suspension of cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for retirees are “just examples. They are not recommendations at this point,” he said.
For Raimondo, it’s certainly easier in the short-term to suggest to people that they are victims than to tell them they are at least partially to blame for the events that have led to their current problem. For union members, it’s easier being a victim than confronting the fact that you were naive, duped or made bad choices in trusting who you did with your future.
As for the politics, in the long term, if real reform happens, then this soft-sell tour may not insulate Raimondo from union ire (though it will ultimately be the General Assembly’s stamp on the reform). Then again, there is no historical or political reason to believe that the General Assembly will be proactive, so, while I don’t doubt her sincerity at all, politically it looks like she’ll be able to present herself as a pro-union, “pragmatic progressive” reformer and maintain her future political viability.