The Other Union Takedown

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While most of the mainstream media focused their attention on Wisconsin and Scott Walker’s victory Tuesday night, an equally, if not more significant vote occurred in two California cities. Voters in San Diego and San Jose overwhelmingly approved cuts to retirement benefits for city workers. San Diego voters approved “Proposition B” by a 66-34 margin. It was even worse for government unions in San Jose, where Proposition B was approved 70-30 percent. “The voters get it, they understand what needs to be done,” said San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat who has called pension reform his highest priority.

It ought to be. Both cities are being crushed by soaring pension costs. From 1999 to 2012, San Diego’s contributions to the city’s retirement fund skyrocketed from $43 million to $231.2 million, an amount equivalent to one-fifth of the city’s general fund budget that pays for its day-to-day operations. From 2001 to 2012, San Jose’s pension costs vaulted from $73 million to $245, equal to 27 percent of its general fund budget.

Such expenses resulted in onerous tradeoffs. In San Diego, libraries and recreation centers were forced to cut back their hours of operation. Roads were left to deteriorate, and some fire houses were temporarily forced to share engines and trucks. In San Jose, four new libraries and a police station have never opened because the city cannot afford to operate them–even though voters approved their financing with construction bonds at the beginning of the last decade.

The real sea-change occurred in San Jose. Unlike reforms adopted elsewhere, including San Diego, reductions do not apply only to new hires. Current government employees will also see reductions in their benefits, a reality that has union members seething — and suing. Thus, Yolanda Cruz, president of the San Jose Municipal Employees Federation, characterized the approval as “an unfortunate way to spend taxpayer money fighting it in court because we will definitely take it there. Taxpayer money would be better used getting services back,” she added. Unions claim that years of court decisions demonstrate that government employers may never decrease current employee pension benefits without offering something comparable in return.

Mayor Reed counters that argument, noting that San Jose is a charter city with the authority to reduce pension benefits not only for future hires, but for current employees remaining years on the job. And even if the unions win in court it’s a Pyrrhic victory at best. Proposition B calls for the city to take the equivalent savings in pay cuts if that occurs.

Government unions tried their utmost to keep these initiatives off the ballot. The Municipal Employees Association in San Diego filed suit to do so, but was defeated in court. Last month, Association general manager Michael Zucchet attempted to defend the indefensible. “This initiative doesn’t save anything,” he said. “You are basically cutting off your nose to spite your face for pension reform.”

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  • Chezwick

    I read this news with elation on Drudge…but will the 9th circuit strike these successful initiatives down, just as it did the referendum that affirmed traditional marriage? I believe the term is 'Judicial tyranny'….and it's alive and well in America.

  • Ken

    Another 2 strikes to the heart of union tyranny!! Too bad, as Chez so sagely stated, the judicial activists will strike them down to placate their sycophants and hacks!!

  • Joey Cusak

    If taxpayers are now able to get together and outspend corrupt union bosses, should the credit go to…. the "infamous" Supreme Court decision in Citizens United?

  • StephenD

    I was told we are "giving up on the Middle Class" by going against the public workers unions. I asked which "Middle Class" should I support; the ones asking for more or the ones paying it? I can understand those that have been in for many years and as they approach retirement they should be able to count on their pensions. There ought to be a cut-off date/time in grade type benchmark. In other words, if the worker has 10 years or more to meet retirement age the pension should be lowered, if less than that. leave them alone. At least those with the time in can count on it and anyone with less time can look for other work if the cuts are unacceptable to them. The city can get its house in order fairly. But “Fair” as measured by the unions is “more, more, more.”

    • Jim_C

      The crazy thing is, Stephen–I agree, and I think your response "which middle class?" is excellent, as is the rest of your post.

      (I have a few caveats, of course, which I won't go into here).

      But the people on "my side" need to realize: tax dollars are not in endless supply, and they actually originate somewhere.

  • Yashmak

    “I was told we are “giving up on the Middle Class” by going against the public workers unions. ”

    What middle class indeed. Only about 15-17% of all US workers are employed in the public sector. Of those, only 37% are members of public-sector unions. This works out to a paltry 6% of all US workers who have public sector union membership.

    Next time someone tries that tired, dishonest line on you, spit the numbers back at them. As a side point, this actually beats the total number of American workers in the private sector who are members of unions. . .that number is just about 4.5% of all American workers. Add that to the public sector unions, and you have just over 1 in 10 American workers represented by unions.