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Donna Perry: Rallying Their Way to Irrelevance

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Among the numerous outcomes that have begun to surface through the state’s months’ long slog toward a vote on a comprehensivepension reform bill is the sense of a growing political isolation of the public employee unions, especially among the leadership.

As several thousand union workers and retirees joined one last large rally Tuesday in advance of today’s expected Finance Committee votes on the reform bill, NEARI President Larry Purtill lobbed the “she’s not a real Democrat” jab at Treasurer Gina Raimondo. A few weeks ago, at an earlier union rally, state workers union head Michael Downey accused both Raimondo and Governor Chafee of “being with the rich people” as they stood with business leaders of a pension reform advocacy group, supposedly due to Raimondo and Chafee’s own personal wealth. But those attacks underscore a growing dilemma that some in union leadership certainly must privately recognize underneath the public rhetoric.

Will the unions extend the Raimondo-Chafee criticisms to legislative leadership in coming days if the vote goes as expected and the bill wins passage? Do the unions believe that entrenched Democrats like Speaker Fox, Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, Finance Chairmen Helio Melo and Dan DaPonte, are also not “real Democrats” and are “with the rich people” in their effort to steer through comprehensive pension reform? If the unions have had a full falling out with Independent Governor Chafee, as now appears, and have run so completely afoul of the state’s legislative Democratic Party hierarchy, as would also now appear to be the case, where are they really going to go? Could it be they are running out of politicians, not to mention political parties,who will carry all their water all the time?

Could it be, (gasp) they are becoming less politically relevant?

Downey’s remarks Tuesday, which again referenced Raimondo and Chafee standing with leaders of the reform side, seemed to embody not only the unions’ collective anger, but also a rising puzzlement that the political ground is shifting beneath them.

“Never in thirty years have we seen a Governor and a Treasurer pump their fist as if they have won something,” Downey shouted out. “Won something by fixing the pension problem on the backs of the employees! Not on my watch.” Yet the growing sense that the unions’ decades long steel-fisted grip on the statehouseis waning was almost palpable at the rally, despite the high turnout. There was a tired tone to the rhetoric from the stage as the leader of the second largest statewide employees’ union took the microphone. Has the script gotten so old and so stale that the only punch line Phil Keefe could reach for is “Enough is Enough.” (Isn’t that what the taxpayer reform groups say about the union excesses?)

Uncooperative in Advisory Panel Process

Keefe commented earlier this fall that “if there is going to be a COLA freeze, that is war to us….anyone who votes for something like that is not a friend of labor.” But let’s recall Labor certainly had a seat at the table (actually four) during the pension reform process. The statewide Pension Advisory Panel, which Raimondo and Chafee co-chaired over the summer, had four prominent union leaders serving on it and Keefe was among them.

The mayors had just one representative, Cranston’s Allen Fung. Despite months of advisory panel meetings and pension system assessments behind the scenes, union leaders did not produce a substantive pension reform counter proposal of their own. (A hastily assembled flyer that made the rounds to coincide with their rally Tuesday is not the same as a comprehensive, researched plan.)The reality is they were waging that Raimondo could not execute her daunting task of redesigning the system, then building and holding together a coalition with legislative leaders to move pension reform all the way through to a vote and so they chose not to participate in any meaningful way in the process.

Mistaken Strategy

Time may very likely prove not only was that a mistaken choice in strategy, but represents a major lost opportunity. Instead of working to be seen as a more willing and cooperative partner to the reform process, they remained obstinate and are now increasingly defensive of statewide media’ s increased scrutiny and the wider public’s rising criticisms of their outsized contracts and pensions. That’s why their protests against what most regard as a fair and fully needed pension overhaul ring hollow with the wider public, whose own pay, benefits, and retirement funds are vastly shrinking. Likewise, the union opposition to working to age 67 has also been met with a “join the club” shrug from the aging private sector workforce, which fully expects to keep going to the age of social security, or beyond.

Although the next days are critical in keeping main components of the wider bill intact in advance of the full vote, in many ways a victory is already at hand. The coming vote to rein in the state’s pension system will only serve to validate what wasalready recognized in the weary taxpayer ranks for a very long time. Enough, after all, is enough.

Donna Perry is a Communications Consultant to RI Statewide Coalition, RISC (http://www.statewidecoalition.com)

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