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“Yes” to reforms, “No” to worker bashing

Thursday, Dec 23, 2010

* My Sun-Times column

As we’re all painfully aware, two Chicago firefighters were killed on the job Wednesday after neighbors thought there might be homeless people inside a burning building. Seventeen other firefighters were injured as they scoured the structure for survivors.

Like just about everyone else, I was deeply moved by the firefighters’ heroism. But then I got angry as my thoughts turned to all the unfair and downright misleading public employee bashing we’ve seen this year.

Firefighters, police officers and everyone else who draws a public paycheck have seemed at times to be a modern-day version of the Ronald Reagan era’s “Cadillac-driving welfare queens.”

Their salaries and benefits are far too lavish, we’ve been told time and time again. The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago is on a mission to drastically reduce public pensions, including for firefighters, so that their overall compensation is more in line with the “private sector.” This city’s “other newspaper” has all but turned its editorial page over to the committee.

The Civic Committee is chaired by a corporate CEO who made more than $15 million last year, according to Forbes.

I seriously doubt that this particular aspect of the “private sector” is what the committee is referring to, however.

Look, I don’t disagree that there are serious problems with the public pension systems.

But how many workers in the “private sector” are paid to run into burning buildings to see if there might possibly be homeless people inside?

Too often, these workers have been dismissed this year as little more than parasites. The truth is, many do the jobs that you or I would not or could not do, for any wage.

Would the four financially well-off leaders of the Illinois General Assembly who are now pushing Medicaid reforms clean up the blood spilled on a hospital emergency room floor at 3 a.m?

The leaders are also attempting to muscle through workers’ compensation reforms, but would any of them volunteer to spend a month working on a busy expressway?

They’re attempting to limit the rights of Chicago teachers to collectively bargain. Would they spend their days attempting to lift inner city youths to greater heights?

Would the editorial board members of that “other newspaper” patrol Chicago’s meanest streets?

Again, let me be clear: Reforms are most certainly needed for every topic mentioned above.

What gets me so riled up is the one-sided tone of this debate. Workers who have given their lives to public service are too often demeaned as overcompensated and unimportant. And those who speak up for the workers are immediately tagged as “shilling for the unions.”

I suppose this climate should’ve been predictable. Times are tough. Millions are out of work and millions more are worried they could be tossed out of their jobs as well. They can’t sell their homes, and even if they could, they’d end up owing money because property values have plummeted.

They’re in no mood to pay for pensions and other benefits that they don’t also receive. They’re angry as hell and this is an easy target, partly because the unions have served themselves up, partly because the people who are in a position to most influence the public debate are taking full advantage of the situation.

What we need here are compromises which recognize both the inability of society to fund everything that has been promised and the responsibility of that same society to pay for the services it too often takes for granted.

Maybe this week’s tragic events can snap us all back to reality. We shouldn’t turn each other into enemies.

* And speaking of reform gone awry

In March, the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn saved Illinois an estimated $220 billion in pension costs over the next 25 years by passing sweeping pension-benefit reductions for future public employees whose retirements are state-funded.

But by doing so, they may have shifted a big chunk of retirement costs to school districts, local governments and the taxpayers who support them.

The cut to benefits is so severe that future teachers probably will have to be put in the federal Social Security system, according to a consultant’s report for the Teachers’ Retirement System.

“It seems likely that, at some point in the future, the TRS second tier plan will no longer meet the requirements for FICA (Social Security) tax exemption,” says the report from Buck Consultants.

Oy.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

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