Social Security and Calif. pensions facing very similar threats

As California labor and community organizations mobilize to uphold Social Security, they are seeing a related development in the concerted drive by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to privatize new state workers’ pensions and eliminate state contributions to teachers’ retirement.

The California Alliance for Retired Americans (CARA) is preparing for a series of 12 town hall meetings from mid-March through early April, half in southern and half in northern California, to provide education on the importance of preserving Social Security, to hold members of Congress accountable on the issue, and to mobilize public opposition to privatization.

“I was in Washington last week, and the president is running this legislation like he did his re-election campaign,” said CARA Director Jodi Reid. “He has his strategists at work, he is going to the people. But he is getting a lukewarm to cold reception at the invitation-only meetings in the five states he visited.” Reid cited exit polls done by the AFL-CIO that showed the president is not even being supported by his base in the right-wing churches.

Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, put it succinctly: “The issue is about a shifting of wealth in this country, an unadulterated attempt by Wall Street to get its hands on our money.” The S.F. Labor Council participated in a labor-community demonstration at the headquarters of giant discount broker Charles Schwab late last month to protest Schwab’s role in pushing Social Security privatization.

Privatization of Social Security and of state workers’ pensions “are parallel tracks,” said Mark Siegel, communications coordinator for AFSCME District Council 36 in southern California. “What President Bush seeks to do with Social Security is being replicated in California with public worker pension funds and Assembly Constitutional Amendment (ACA) 5,” Siegel added. “Both will be a great boon to money managers. Both will cost huge sums that could be spent on pensions, health benefits and cost-of-living raises. Both undermine a secure retirement.” He pointed out that current workers will be affected as well, because funds for their pensions and benefits will be drained away.

ACA 5 is being sponsored by Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Los Angeles) with the governor’s approval. It would bar the state from offering “defined benefit” pensions to state workers hired starting in 2007. The amendment must go to voters in a special election anticipated later this year.

Together with the California Labor Federation and unions throughout the state, AFSCME is launching a concerted fightback against this and other anti-worker proposals. Siegel said AFSCME’s campaign is starting with worksite meetings and special presentations at union membership meetings, and will later include reaching out to community members and organizations beyond the labor movement.

Not only would new California teachers be included in the shift from “defined benefit” to “defined contribution” pensions, but under the governor’s proposal the state would also stop making its annual contribution to the retirement fund of current teachers and classified employees. “In his presentation of the state budget proposal last month, Schwarzenegger offered a view of the future that resembles private sector management proposals over the last few years,” the California Federation of Teachers said in a statement on its web site. “The idea of privatizing pension funds is as distasteful to teachers and other school employees as the idea of privatizing Social Security is to most Americans,” the CTA added.

mbechtel@pww.org