Published at CounterPunch on May 29, 2015.
The Corporate Mugging of Public Retirees
The highway to Rhode Island was fairly quiet in the early morning hours before the traffic rush. I was completing the second of two commutes to give testimony in Superior Court in Providence in the so-called “Fairness Hearing” related to the pension legislation of 2011 that would turn my pension into a shadow of what had been promised by contract to me by the state when I retired. The court was peopled by somewhere between 50 to 75 retired teachers, state workers, police, and firefighters.
The Rhode Island Retirement Security Act of 2011, is a bald-faced attempt to take money from the pockets of retired public workers and enrich Wall Street interests with that money. Specifically, it would enrich hedge funds, private equity investments, and real estate enterprises and their managers. It is the latest move on the part of corporate America to enforce both a predatory and far right-wing type of capitalism. The former Wall Street investor and now governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, led this corporate charge beginning when she was general treasurer of RI. She was aided and abetted by the RI General Assembly, former governor Lincoln Chafee, and now almost certainly the Superior Court. The former Enron executive and billionaire, John Arnold, formed a political action group, Engage RI, to assist in molding public opinion for this corporate raid on public retirement money. A state once known for its strong union movement, RI now suffers from economic stagnation.
My presentation before the court was about the corporate takeover of pension funds across the nation and in RI in particular. I cited articles from Rolling Stone by Matt Taibbi (“Looting the Pension Funds”), in The Intercept by Murtaza Hussain (“Wall Street Is Taking Over America’s Pension Plans”), and from In These Times by David Sirota (“Wall Street to Workers: Give Us Your Retirement Savings and Stop Asking Questions”). I talked about the 30 years I had spent working in the schools of RI and the 28 years my wife had worked there.
The judge let me go over the five-minute limit set for protesters to the pension law. Others speaking before and following my talk told of the injuries they had sustained, both on and off the job, but one retired teacher in particular caught my attention. She recounted how she had looked forward to a long life after serving children in the classroom for decades. She now did not know if that long life she had once hoped for would be such a good thing after all. I thought that the powerful and the few were mocking this woman’s long life of dedication to the kids she served. I wondered if a loud laugh went up in the boardrooms of the elite for her heartfelt description of a life of sacrifice now going unrewarded. The almost total cut of her cost of living adjustment or COLA (frozen since 2011) that had been pegged at an annual rate of 3 percent, would now be cut to a maximum of a few hundred dollars a year instead of the contractually agreed upon amount of money over the course of an expected lifespan.
Unions in RI have been left in a precarious position since the pension “reform” law was passed in 2011. Unions no longer receive dues from retired workers. The national unions have contributed money to the cause of defeating this law, but they do not have the luxury of millions of dollars at their disposal to fight these battles taking place all across the US. Conversely, the state and corporate interests have billions of dollars at their disposal.
I left the courthouse at lunchtime to head down to the seashore and ride my bike along a beautiful bike path that leads from the Amtrak station in Kingston, RI, down to the open ocean in Narragansett. While I would have liked to have made a stronger statement against the injustice of what was happening to public employees in RI, sometimes seeking refuge against the juggernaut of greed and meanness is perhaps a needed and temporary sanctuary.
There is no doubt in my mind that the judge will support the state’s denial of the majority of the cost of living adjustment “guarantee” within a few days. The judge will most likely reward the few and the wealthy over those who committed their lives to helping others.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at howielisnoff.wordpress.com.