Pension reform: don't blame workers

It's all the rage these days to blame the economy's woes on public workers, whatever the facts are, no matter who the culprit really is

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By Larry Bradshaw and Roxanne Sanchez

OPINION Members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, who make up about half of all San Francisco city employees — the lowest-paid half — are currently at the negotiating table with the Mayor's Office working out a deal to give back $100 million toward the city's deficit over the next two years. Last year our members gave back $48 million.

Now San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi is proposing a new charter amendment to make city workers pay huge increases in their pensions and health care coverage. Never mind that he draws no distinction between the highly paid managers and the lower paid workers, between those feeding at the trough and those who toil to make and fill the trough. It's all the rage these days to blame the economy's woes on public workers, whatever the facts are, no matter who the culprit really is.

Wall Street speculators crashed the stock market, causing workers' pension funds to lose billions and wiping out their other retirement savings. The losses require local and state governments to spend more to keep the funds solvent. So who do Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman — and Adachi — blame? The victims: the workers.

Insurance companies continue to raise premiums on health care coverage, making money hand over fist. They use those funds to lobby against reforms, from single-payer to the public option. When they win, the costs of continuing to cover workers and their families continue to escalate. Who do Schwarzenegger, Whitman — and Adachi — blame? The victims: the workers.

In an op-ed piece published last week in the right-wing Republican blog FlashReport, Schwarzenegger came out in support of a SB 919, a measure that would significantly increase employees' contribution to the pension fund and decrease their pension payments upon retirement.

Whitman, who is spending millions of dollars of the money she made at Goldman Sachs in quasi-legal transactions, is proposing to not only double employees' contributions to their pension fund and reduce the benefit, but to increase the retirement age and eliminate the defined pension benefit for new hires.

Into this company comes Adachi. He is concerned with the deficit since budget cuts have meant that his office has been unable to cover all the cases it is mandated to defend, and now some of those are being contracted out. Welcome to our world, Jeff.

Adachi has only two months to gather at least 70,000 valid signatures to get the required number to qualify for the ballot. It's highly unlikely that can be accomplished without hiring signature-gatherers.

Herein lies the irony. Adachi is going to have to turn to downtown interests, the very financial and corporate interests that tanked the stock market, and the pension funds, for the money to penalize workers for Wall Street's crimes.

Certainly San Francisco is facing financial problems. But instead of attacking workers, perhaps Adachi and his friends should join us in attacking the real problem. We are working on ideas for ballot measures that can raise new revenue for the city. Now that the city's unions have stepped up and given back together $200 million, it's time for downtown financial interests to contribute. *

Larry Bradshaw is a paramedic and Local 1021 vice president. Roxanne Sanchez is president of Local 1021.