Who Can Save S.F. Workers’ Pensions?


“The 10 biggest businesses in town earned a combined $12.9 billion in profits last year. In other words, there’s plenty of money to pay for city services.”

-San Francisco Bay Guardian

This story is about union leaders in San Francisco, the fabled city by the bay, who are as dependent on “labor-friendly” politicians as are union bureaucrats anywhere in the country.

This story is about those union officials and their political bedfellows, who together have been using their considerable muscle to gang up on union members who work under contracts mutually negotiated by the union tops and the politicians.

This is about 29 unions that have agreed to have their members “temporarily give up pension benefits to help the city close a $175 million budget gap,” as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle (June 18).

To be specific, for the next year, city workers will have to pay into their retirement fund (which formerly was paid for entirely by the employer) at a rate equal to 2.75 percent of their basic wages. Thus, a union worker grossing $30,000 yearly will lose about $825, according to a union estimate.

The city’s Democratic mayor, the admittedly high-living Willie Brown, is promising no lay-offs for a year and a one percent wage increase over several years for unions that agree to the pension concession.

Aside from the unions that have caved in to the mayor’s demands for the mid-contract concession, there are a few holdouts. So the tough-minded Willie Brown is threatening to fire workers in those unions that don’t dig into their take-home pay to make their pension contributions.

For example, the Laborers Union called a membership meeting to hear Mayor Brown make his case and then re-vote the proposal, after they first voted no. “I can barely afford to live here now,” a gardener told the press. Despite “a pitch that was liberally sprinkled with heckles and hisses” from some unionists, the members voted by about two to one to give Brown and their officials what they wanted.

Admittedly, Brown had a compelling argument. “But I can tell you this-chances are you won’t have a job when I leave, unless you vote the right way on this,” Brown reportedly told his rank-and-file opponents.

Four Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals have refused to give Brown the pension money, despite Brown’s announcement that he’ll “cut 61 [SEIU] laundry workers” at a city facility for the aged. Should the SEIU unions eventually agree, city officials say the savings would reduce the city’s budget deficit by another $13 million.

San Francisco is the center of a metropolis that has enormous wealth. The city’s corporate bosses generally are doing very well indeed. So well, in fact, that on the basis of ability to pay, the city’s financial elite should be at the head of the line for making up the city’s budget deficit-not the city’s gardeners, laundry workers, and typists.

But the politicians don’t see it that way and that’s no surprise. If there is a surprise, it’s that the union officialdom isn’t telling the mayor to go after the well-heeled financial class because that’s where the real money is. Nor are the unions taking their beef over the mayor’s threats to cut their members’ jobs to the streets.

SEIU Local 250 President Sal Rosseli, one of the holdouts, reportedly said, “We’re very hopeful to work with the mayor and [Board of Supervisors President] Tom Ammiano to resolve this in a fair way for residents and public employees.” Rosseli has offered the city a counter-proposal. He proposes that Brown and Ammiano cut the so-called performance bonuses of the city’s managerial bureaucracy.

No doubt the unions can and should make a case for eliminating civic bureaucratic waste and patronage perks. But surely the unions can and should make a strong case for protecting their members’ living standards by taxing the wealthy in order to close the budget gap.

In 1992, John J. Sweeney, the then newly elected president of the AFL-CIO, said that “20 years of declining wages and disappearing benefits are taking their toll on American life. There’s a free-floating anger among hardworking people for whom the American dream is turning into a handful of ashes.” But those declining wages didn’t just evaporate; the workers’ lost wages wound up in someone’s bank account.

The New York Times reported (Feb. 7) that “wealth in America is more highly concentrated today than at any time since 1929,” citing research by professor Edward N. Wolf, a New York University economist. The same article reported that taxes for wage earners were increasing at the same time that taxes on the wealthy were falling.

The union leaders, including Rosseli, should explain to their members why they’re not mobilizing that “free-floating anger” into the streets in defense of their ranks’ pensions. They should explain why they’re not leading as if they’re mad as hell and determined not to take it anymore.

There’s a moral to this story: union members won’t get what they deserve as long as they don’t take matters into their own hands. That’s why many workers formed unions in the first place.

As the San Francisco pension sell-out proves, workers need to update their thinking. Their welfare is too important to leave in the hands of the bosses, their political stooges, and the union bureaucrats.

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