Organized labor's big moment

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 15, 2011

But the electoral successes have yielded mixed results, at best, in the legislature. Earlier this year, the General Assembly stunned some observers when it passed a measure cutting off automatic longevity bonuses — pay hikes tied to length of service — for state employees.

And labor's top priority, a bill that would send contract disputes to binding arbitration, died in the House.

Union leaders did claim a couple of victories, not least of them the defeat of a Chafee proposal to increase public employees' contributions to their pension plans by three percent of their pay — a sort of down payment on pension reform.

That Chafee would even propose such a thing, though, was a sign that labor might not have the ally it expected in the governor's office. Union leaders say they weren't terribly pleased with Chafee's lukewarm support for binding arbitration either.

And now, with the pension reform fight approaching, the tension between organized labor and the Chafee Adminis-tration is bursting into the open.

During the campaign, Chafee suggested that pension reform should focus on new workers and leave the benefits of current employees and retirees untouched. But he is now planning to issue a joint proposal with Raimondo, who has made no such assurances. And labor is wary.

Bob Walsh, president of the National Education Association-Rhode Island, threw a jab at the governor in a recent interview with the Phoenix, suggesting Chafee should be mindful of the discontent brewing in the coalition that handed him a "phenomenally narrow victory" in the election last year.

It is not just labor that is concerned, he says. Same-sex marriage advocates are disappointed that the governor didn't push harder for gay nuptials. And Latinos and liberals are upset that he signed a law requiring voters to show picture identification before casting a ballot; the fear is that the measure could disenfranchise poor, elderly, and immigrant voters who may lack the proper ID.

The governor's office, Walsh adds, hasn't reached out to labor to discuss the particulars of the coming pension proposal — or even to determine what the unions might find wholly unacceptable.

"I would hope," he says, "they would pick up the phone before they promulgate a bill."


THE PLAN

Labor isn't just waiting for the call, though.

A collection of public-sector unions known as the Rhode Island Retirement Security Coalition has released a 10-minute video educating members on the pension conundrum and urging them to contact Raimondo and Chafee.

The group has sent a mailer to 30,000 union members warning that they will be "steamrolled" if they don't take action

And the organization has secured $40,000 in campaign funds from the National Public Pension Coalition, a union-backed group that fights to protect public pensions across the country.

Labor leaders say phone banks, neighborhood canvassing, and an advertising campaign will probably follow.

The real strength of the campaign, union officials and observers say, will be the human element. The stories of individual teachers and secretaries who have made their required contributions to the pension system only to face an uncertain retirement are at the center of the early messaging effort.

And the personal advocacy of those workers — at church, at the supermarket, on the phone — should be a potent force; indeed, it will make this particular union push a bit of an outlier.

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