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January 2012, Week 4

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Killing Pensions to Benefit the 1 Percent 

by Lee A. Saunders

Huffington Post

January 12, 2012

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lee-a-saunders/wall-street-journal-pensions_b_1200101.html

Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, the Pravda of the 1
percent, is at it again, continuing its push to gut the
retirement security of millions of middle class workers
across the country while enriching the Wall Street moneymen
who just three years ago took our economy over the cliff.

Virtually everyone agrees that our nation faces a retirement
security crisis, but the Journal last week published a
shameful op-ed calling for the elimination of pensions for
nurses, firefighters, corrections officers and others who
still have them. Having punched private sector workers
retirement in the gut, these folks won't be happy until the
whole concept of a secure retirement for working Americans
is a thing of the past.

The typical AFSCME member -- men and women who plow our
streets, care for the sick, protect our children, clean our
buildings and keep our communities safe -- receives a
pension of approximately $19,000 a year after a career of
public service. The employees have earned and paid for these
pensions. Employee contribution rates commonly amount to 3
percent to 10 percent of their paychecks. These
contributions, combined with investment earnings, usually
account for 75 percent or more of all pension benefit
funding.

The economy's collapse in 2008-2009 took its toll on
everyone's retirement savings. But our nation's public
pension systems, which were fully funded before the crash,
continue their robust recovery earning their highest returns
in decades in fiscal year 2011. Pensions continue to provide
irreplaceable retirement security to millions of Americans
who provide public services. Yet, the corporate-backed
opponents of pensions are creating a myth that the system is
falling apart and that state and local governments are going
bankrupt because of the $19,000 pensions sanitation workers
are earning.

That is simply not true. According to the Center for
Economic and Policy Research, the size of the projected
state and local government pension funding shortfalls is
manageable. In most states, the total shortfall for the
pension funds is less than 0.2 percent of projected gross
state product during the next 30 years. Even in states with
the largest shortfalls, the gap is less than 0.5 percent of
projected state product during that period. And, because
pension payments are made over generations of workers,
funding can remain stable over long periods, and funding
challenges managed over decade long periods, despite short-
term economic setbacks. These are facts that the opponents
of public pensions simply ignore, as they seek to punish
workers for Wall Street's psychopathic behavior.

Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine -- representing two right-
wing, corporate-funded propaganda outfits, the American
Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation -- were
given prime space on the Journal's op-ed page last week to
make an argument for radically transforming the retirement
savings of working Americans. They laid out a reckless plan
to end guaranteed retirement accounts, and in some cases
require workers to forfeit their life savings, and force
public workers to enrich Wall Street firms that have already
demonstrated their inability to produce adequate resources
to meet the needs of retirees. What's even worse, their plan
would cost taxpayers significantly more than the current
system, thereby transferring even greater amounts of
taxpayer money into the coffers of Wall Street bankers.

This scheme would put the retirement savings of millions of
working, middle-class Americans with earned pensions into a
casino-like 401(k) system. In the private sector, it has
already failed miserably. It's a plan that could devour the
ability of hard-working public employees to retire with any
semblance of security. Even the Journal admitted in an
article last year that the median household with a 401(k)
has less than one-quarter of the savings needed for
retirement. Yet it seems the editorial page editors ignore
this fact and continue their misguided crusade against
workers' economic security.

And let's put an end to the notion that public employees
haven't had to accept reductions. Fully 40 states have
reduced benefits and/or increased employee contribution
requirements in the past two years. AFSCME is willing to
work with government officials at all levels to enact
sensible pension reforms.

While pension funds face manageable challenges, the same
cannot be said for the failed 401(k) system that Wall Street
and the corporate chieftains have forced onto private sector
workers. After three decades of experience with it, we know
401(k)s do not meet the one true test of effectiveness:
economic security in retirement. Yet instead of devoting
their energies to fixing the system they foisted on workers,
the right-wing, pension heretics are intent on destroying
the retirement security of the remaining Americans who have
it.

That's not a real solution. It's just another cynical effort
to attack working Americans and benefit the folks at the top
of the income ladder. We need to ensure that more workers in
our country have real retirement security and say no to the
extremists who want to transfer more of America's wealth to
the top 1 percent.

[Lee A. Saunders is the Secretary-Treasurer of the American
Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFL-
CIO, which represents 1.6 million workers. He was elected at
the union's 39th International Convention in July 2010.

Prior to his election, Saunders served as Executive
Assistant to AFSCME Pres. Gerald McEntee and has been
responsible for managing what is acknowledged to be the most
effective political and legislative operations in the
history of the American labor movement. AFSCME's clout in
fundraising and member mobilization, and its lobbying
expertise are unmatched in the ranks of the AFL-CIO and
beyond.

Building on ideas generated by local unions, Saunders has
championed AFSCME's Next Wave initiative to encourage and
develop the next generation of union leadership. He has also
developed and supported programs that foster diversity and
promote increased member participation within the union.]

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