Politics & Government

The unions’ playbook for public pension defense

Chuck Reed’s public-employee pension initiative is a long way from making it to a statewide vote – money being the biggest hurdle – but labor unions have already started blasting the proposal.

The San Jose mayor’s measure would, among other things, change the California Constitution to explicitly allow state and local governments in a fiscal emergency to cut future retirement costs by lowering current employees’ benefits prospectively but leave accrued benefits untouched. Right now, court rulings appear to give government workers an ironclad right to the pension promised on their first day of work.

The unions say that Reed’s proposal will speed government pensions down the same road to near-oblivion that private-sector pensions have traveled. Here are some ways they’ll fight it:

Kill it in the crib. Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat with strong union backing, assigns ballot measures’ titles and summaries. Last year she essentially killed efforts to put a different pension initiative on the 2012 ballot with summary statements that were “either provably false or grossly misleading,” the measure’s proponents said at the time.

That, in turn, waylaid raising the $2million or so for signature collection needed to put the proposal on the ballot. Unions would love Reed’s measure to get the same treatment.

Remember the real audience. Only a handful of people have checkbooks big enough and political leanings strong enough to underwrite Reed’s campaign. Convince them it’s a lost cause and the thing will never get off the ground. Pour money into social media and maybe a traveling campaign of “real people” to talk about how Reed’s measure would affect them. Make potential backers think twice.

Hammer out-of-state money and Wall Street. “Opponents want the guy with the big checkbook in Texas to be the face of the measure,” said Dan Schnur of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. He was referring to a Houston nonprofit with ties to a former Enron executive that last summer gave $200,000 to the mayor’s hometown chamber of commerce for pension reform research. Unions have blasted the donation. Wall Street tycoons who brought down the economy make good targets, too.

Talk up cops, firefighters and teachers. Make them the victims of Reed’s proposal. Tax collectors, DMV employees and custodians? They’d be affected too, but those jobs don’t shine in voter polls.

Organize. During a radio interview last week, union spokesman Terry Brennand was asked about strategy to fight Reed’s proposal. The SEIU lobbyist recalled how organized labor rallied with a boots-on-the-ground blitz last year to defeat a ballot measure that would have made it more difficult to collect union members’ money for political purposes. “Look,” Brennand said, “for a repeat of that.”