Monitor breakfast with AFL-CIO President Trumka -- public pension cuts

When you hear about public employees who retire before 60 on full salaries, it's hard to work up sympathy for unions defending those pensions before state budget cutters. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka disagrees. What about CEO salaries, he asks?

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor/File
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka at a Monitor breakfast Sept. 2. The umbrella organization for labor represents 11.5 million members, including teachers, miners, firefighters, pilots, farm workers, and public employees.

Before the Great Recession, you probably did not pay much attention to the retirement benefits that public employees get. I didn’t.

But now we’re hearing stories in the media such as the one about New York policemen in Yonkers who are retiring in their 40s on $100,000 pensions (more than their highest salaries). Or about California, where payments to the biggest state pension fund have skyrocketed while spending on education has been cut.

It makes a person dream of belonging to a public employee union – if their benefits will hold up, that is. States and local government can no longer afford their promises of full salaries or retiring long before private-sector workers. The Pew Center for the States calculates that states face a $1 trillion shortfall in their funds for retiree benefits.

All over the country now, states and municipalities are revisiting public pension benefits, mostly for new workers, but in some cases, for current employees.

That context was the subject of my question to the Monitor’s breakfast guest today – Richard Trumka, president of the labor union umbrella group, the AFL-CIO. I asked him whether it would be harder for organized labor to hold on to benefits because of the difference between what their public employees get and what nongovernment workers get.

“I’m a little amazed that you would say that,” he answered. And then he began to talk about what’s happened with CEO salaries: “They are so far out of touch with the rest of the world.” Meanwhile, he went on: “Our wages are less now than they were 30 years ago. Our benefits are lower than they were 20-some years ago.”

Do you pull people down because they earn more than you do? he asked. No, you try to raise others up. “Our position is everybody ought to retire with a minimum of 70 percent of their take-home pay.”

If only.

The CEO comparison is certainly true. So is the need to lift all boats. And I and many other people would love to retire on 70 percent of our salaries.

But the germane comparison is what public employees get vs. what everyone else gets, i.e., what the market’s paying. That’s what matters to budget cutters at a time of fiscal belt tightening.

Public employee unions should not expect much sympathy from hurting taxpayers, either. In this fight, they’re on their own.

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