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Travis Rowley: Pension Reform? Or Pension Negotiations?

Friday, September 23, 2011


Despite what advocates of organized labor may want people to believe, labor unions do not primarily exist for anything universal, or for any grandiose principles. Very simply, the job description for a labor leader is to fight on behalf of his members, the people who pay the union dues that provide him with his salary.

Certainly, union bosses invoke the righteous rhetoric of class warfare, speaking loftily of “fair shares,” “workers’ rights” and “corporate jets.” But their expression of Marxist principles is often geared for the more immediate purpose of fulfilling their daily duties – negotiating on behalf of their membership.

The NEA’s former top attorney Bob Chanin confirmed this in 2009 when he said, “NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them…This is not to say that the concern of NEA and its affiliates with closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates, improving teacher quality and the like are unimportant or inappropriate…But they need not, and must not, be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights, and collective bargaining. That simply is too high a price to pay.”

While Chanin’s common leftist obsession with “power” is disturbing, it is his presentation of union priorities that is most relevant here.

When Chanin’s speech surfaced several months ago, many people seemed shocked to discover that the NEA was, in fact, a union! But to avoid such astonishment, all they had to do was recall the words of longtime teachers’ union president Albert Shanker: “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” Or they could have listened to the late epiphany of former Providence School Board president Kathleen Crain, who said several months ago, “Public education is not about children; it's about power and politics."

Public Unions’ True Colors

For some reason, people continuously make the mistake of offering public labor leaders the benefit of the doubt. Under the naïve presumption that they would be working on behalf of the greater good, several public-employee union leaders were recently appointed to the Pension Advisory Committee, a group tasked with solving Rhode Island’s pension crisis. It didn’t take long for those labor leaders to begin sending out signals of defiance.

Again, this was predictable. Sitting on the Committee was Philip Keefe, president of the second largest state employees’ union. Back in June, regarding his presence on the Committee, Keefe said that he “would rather be part of the solution than sit by the sidelines and have other people make decisions for me and my members.” And, in addition to all the threats of potential lawsuits against the taxpayers, Executive Director of NEA-RI Bob Walsh (another Committee member) stated last week, “The message to Governor Chafee is . . . hey, you made promises to us. Keep your promises.”

Widely viewed as one of the most modest and sensible changes to the current pension system is to scale back COLA (Cost Of Living Adjustments) payments to state retirees – an action that would simply suspend any future increases to pension payouts. With the public having little sympathy for anyone receiving pay raises in this economic climate, and knowing that most reformers have their sights set on the COLA, eight public-employee unions launched a ten-minute video two weeks ago that called cuts to the COLA a “drastic action.”

If labor leaders won’t agree to changes in the COLA, what will they agree to?

Donald Trump recently observed that Republicans are “terrible, frightened negotiators.” In comparison to labor-Democrats, Trump is absolutely correct. After all, these are people who negotiate for a living, charged with the enduring task of “collective bargaining.”

In addition to always pretending to be an outraged victim, a crucial portion of labor’s bargaining prowess is to initially offer nothing, while demanding everything. This ensures that the ultimate compromise will be closest to their first offer. And this is the strategy currently being used by the public unions.

In fact, Bob Walsh has been digging his heels in for years. In 2003, when Governor Carcieri was advocating for pension reform (and when pension reform would have been less painful for public employees), Walsh protested, “This is really not a negotiable issue for us.”

Negotiating, Not Cooperating.

Consider this: The RI Statewide Coalition (RISC) – a conservative, pro-business critic of organized labor – did not have the fortune of having any of its members sit on the Pension Advisory Committee. Yet, RISC still released a five-point “detailed pension reform proposal” that they believe will help solve the state’s pension crisis. In contrast to RISC, as late as last week, when “asked if he or any of his fellow union leaders had a proposal of their own,” Bob Walsh said “he hadn’t been asked” (Providence Journal). In similar fashion, the unions’ ten-minute video presentation conspicuously failed to offer any solutions to the state’s pension crisis.

A member of the Committee not being able to offer his thoughts on the state’s pension disaster is baffling, unless one realizes that labor leaders are fixed in a perpetual state of negotiation. And with the public more awake than ever, Walsh doesn’t find it wise or advantageous to inform Rhode Islanders of his true intentions – concede nothing, raise taxes, and push billions of dollars of debt onto Rhode Island’s children.

Committee members have insisted that the group’s purpose was “to represent the interests of all Rhode Islanders." During his pleas for Governor Chafee to stand by his campaign “promises,” however, Bob Walsh revealed the mindset that guides his priorities: “You should treat everyone well, but you treat your allies better.''

Every public-employee labor leader given the privilege to sit on the Pension Advisory Committee should have been replaced with members of RISC or the RI Tea Party. From the outset, they were playing politics. They weren’t trying to solve the problem. They were negotiating. Once again, they were trying to get as much as they could from Rhode Island taxpayers.

Lest we forget, that is their job. That’s who they are.

Travis Rowley (TravisRowley.com) is chairman of the RI Young Republicans and a consultant for the Barry Hinckley Campaign for US Senate.


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