Politics & Government

The State Worker: Pension crusader Chuck Reed reaches out to unions

In a Nixon-goes-to-China move, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed recently sent letters to the leaders of a dozen state employee unions and the California Teachers Association, asking them to meet with him to talk about pensions.

The letter was either shrewd, insincere or naive. Reed, a Democrat who made a name for himself with a pension rollback measure embraced by 69percent of San Jose voters last year, is in Arnold Schwarzenegger territory when it comes to his popularity with the unions.

Like the former GOP governor, Reed wants to cut public pension costs. Unlike Schwarzenegger, Reed has changed employee pensions without bargaining. The Austrian Oak stayed out of local governments’ pension business and didn’t press for a statewide ballot measure that would change labor’s holy grail: the idea that pension promises can’t be broken.

Earlier this month, Reed filed papers to put a measure on the November 2014 ballot that would, among other things, give state and local governments the clear constitutional authority to cut current employees’ pension benefits prospectively. Right now, California case law appears to make public pensions an unchangeable “vested right” from an employee’s first day on the job.

“We understand that many of you may object to the Pension Reform Act of 2014,” Reed’s letter says, “but I want to assure you that we are simply looking for a common-sense solution to a complex and serious problem.”

His close: “(W)e are reaching out to you in hopes of finding areas of agreement for restoring the integrity and stability of government pension systems. Please feel free to contact me if you are amenable to a meeting.”

Bruce Blanning, executive director of California’s state engineers union, finds the timing of Reed’s letter curious.

“If you want to talk and get our input,” he said, “you typically do that before you’ve submitted a ballot proposal, not after.”

From the mayor’s point of view, the unions need to eat their vegetables. From the unions’ point of view, the mayor’s poison plan legalizes breaking promises to employees and throws middle-class workers’ retirement security overboard under the guise of fiscal responsibility.

The irony of President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China was that he built his political career as a staunch anti-communist. His visit ended a quarter-century of estrangement between two of the world’s most powerful nations. It changed history.

A disbelieving comment on the State Worker’s community Facebook page summed up labor’s likely reaction to pension-crusader Reed’s outreach: “I just declared war on you. ... But hey, let’s chat!”

Politically, it really doesn’t matter if unions accept the mayor’s invitation. Either way, Reed will claim the high moral ground. He’s facing down labor interests that can make or break Democrats like him. He gets to look reasonable. Like Nixon.