With just six days left, I sent in my ballot. On that basis alone, the informed reader will know how I voted.
This past Valentine’s Day, the parties to litigation over the ironically-named Rhode Island Retirement Security Act (RIRSA) announced a negotiated settlement that, if approved, would represent an incremental improvement—or, more accurately, various possible incremental improvements, depending on which of six voting blocs you fit into—over the terms of the original RIRSA legislation of 2011. The details of the settlement are to be found at ripensioninfo.org. For those unfamiliar, I wrote an explanation of the destruction of public employee pensions in Rhode Island that was published in Labor Notes shortly after. Many reports have since surfaced about the corruption involved in the whole pension heist, including Matt Taibbi’s reporting in Rolling Stone, as well as Dave Sirota’s most recent piece on the involvement of Enron money in financing Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s hit job.
What I want to take up here is the question of what this settlement represents, why many members of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island (ERSRI) will be voting “no”, and what that “no” vote means. I base the following not on any expert knowledge of actuarial science or accounting, but simply on my existence as a public employee, my conversations with coworkers, and also the odd informational meeting on the pension settlement that I attended in East Providence earlier this month.
The first question is: what’s wrong with the settlement? In many ways, the settlement represents some improvement for retirees and future retirees on the terms of the original pension reform. The cost of living adjustment (COLA) on underfunded pension funds will now be made every four years instead of every five; the penalty for early retirements will be decreased; and perhaps most significantly, ERSRI members with 20 years or more of service as of June 30, 2012 will be moved back to the 100% defined-benefit plan (i.e. the old pension system). But fundamentally, the real objective of the pension reform remains in place, namely the financialization of a significant portion of retirements for the younger generation of workers. Half of my pension still belongs to investment bankers, and its value depends on the vagaries of the market. Wall Street still wins.
So why would anyone accept this settlement? It’s easy to see why the 20+ year members would want to go back to the old plan (though I’ve been told that even then, all is not roses). There is also the prospect, for the more market savvy, that the defined contribution plan could yield much greater returns—if you know how to play the market, perhaps. (That sentiment—“I want to hold on to my investments”—was definitely present at the East Providence informational meeting.) But more generally, it’s likely that many ERSRI members will feel that this is the best we can get. After all, the pension reform was approved overwhelmingly by the Rhode Island General Assembly. In the lead-up to the approval of the legislation, my union sent out postcards encouraging members to get involved to stop the reform—but the postcard featured an image of a bulldozer bearing down on teachers and state workers. That image was completely à propos of the actual situation, but it frankly did not inspire confidence toward a victory for pensioners. For those of us who feel completely bulldozed, getting a little help scraping ourselves off the pavement may seem like a real step up. In short, I do not think anyone voting “no” should feel resentment toward those who do not (vote).
But the question is different when posed in regard to our union leaders. The union leaderships are, in point of fact, committed by the terms of the settlement to advocate for the settlement. But more than that, they are running scared. They are scared to death that the settlement might fail; they are scared to death of going through with legislation and its costs; most of all, they are scared of the possibility that a judge may rule in the only way that would be definitive, namely that public employee pensions are not actually guaranteed as property rights. These fears are not necessarily ill-founded. In particular, the costs of further litigation give reason for pause: while the unions will have to pay for their own lawyers out of union dues, the state has already said it will pay for its legal team by dipping into the public employees’ pension funds. In other words, they’ll use our money to fight us. True bastards.
Probably even more terrible is the prospect of Governor Gina Raimondo. Raimondo’s campaign, recently announced officially but publicly known since 2011, is by far the best-financed gubernatorial campaign in the state, having garnered massive contributions from all over the country by venture capitalists appreciative of the treasurer’s contribution to their own enrichment. To compound matters, it appears—so an inside source tells me—that some of the private sector unions are eager to endorse Raimondo for governor, as she is the most “viable” candidate, and unions love endorsing a winner. Though the public sector unions are not likely to endorse her in any case—NEARI has already endorsed Linc Chafee redux Clay Pell—the approval of the settlement agreement will open the way for the private sector unions to endorse their darling without seriously endangering the unity of the union bureaucrats. (If there was ever an argument in favor of breaking from the Democrats and building an independent workers’ party, this total mess of a situation is it.)
The bureaucrats also have a reason to fear that the settlement will fail. If any one of the voting blocs in the settlement votes by 50% + 1 or more to reject the settlement, the whole thing will be scrapped. If that does not happen (and they’re relying on passivity for it not to happen—see below), there is still the possibility that the next step, the judge’s fairness hearing, could turn up some argument that the judge will accept as a reason not to deem the settlement acceptable. But most importantly, the final say on this deal lies in the hands of the Rhode Island General Assembly…in an election year… And here lies the real rub. Whatever we think about it, our fate is in the hands of people who overwhelmingly voted against us before, and whose leadership has just changed in a more conservative direction.
At this point, I should clarify a point that has been implicit up to now: there is no way to actively vote “yes” on this agreement. The vote is happening by mail-in ballot which only allows for a “no” vote. If you approve of the settlement, you are instructed to do nothing. This has been widely confusing to union members, who are used to being able to vote “yes” or “no” on contract offers. But this, of course, is not a contract offer. It is, rather, a legal settlement which is no way required the mobilization or even education of union members. As such, it is being carried out along the lines of a class action lawsuit. In that context, it is widely assumed that it will be near impossible to make any real democratic decision on the way forward, when the parties concerned are only connected through the suit and may never be able to meet in person. The legal team comes to a decision on how to move forward toward a settlement, and the only active possibility for the parties concerned is a “no” vote—if not, the “yes” is already assumed, even if the concerned parties don’t vote. While this fact has angered some union members who view it as undemocratic or even a rigged process, it is more significant for the position that it forces union members into—namely, that of passive observers of a larger process they can’t control or even influence.
So to answer the question posed in the title: what is the meaning of “no”? Clearly, it should not be understood to mean that retirees want their COLA every five years instead of four, nor that the majority of people are happier playing roulette with their retirement. What it is, is the active expression of those who are paying attention, who understand how brazenly we’ve been defrauded by the likes of Gina Raimondo, Kurt Schilling, and other such corporate crooks. It’s a rejection of neoliberal destruction of workers’ living standards and rights. It’s a complete rejection of RIRSA, and a plea to return to a time when public employees were guaranteed a living from hiring to grave. We never got a chance to vote on the pension reform—until now. Here’s our vote.
The power and the glory of the “no” vote—but also its ultimate futility—is that it’s utterly utopian. There will be no return to the old system. It’s impossible, and we were condemned to lose from the beginning. Why? Because public employee pensions, a product of the Keynsian phase of capitalism, have long outlived the conditions in which they were created, and are now a victim of the crisis of the neoliberal phase of capitalism, a.k.a. austerity. The dynamic is this: after a generation of unbridled free-market fundamentalism, the bankers reached the end of the line. The emperor had no clothes, the banking system was exposed as bankrupt (in more ways than one), and everywhere governments threw boatloads of cash at them to prop up the banking system. This drove them into what are known as sovereign debt crises—no money to fund public expenditures that weren’t banks, no shred of will to tax the rich, thus the inexorable drive toward austerity and cuts. Our unions were utterly unprepared to deal with this onslaught—lacking comprehension, lacking vision, lacking any recent experience of mobilizing the members for any kind of fight, they were completely powerless. It would have taken a state-wide strike against the bill to potentially stop it—though even then, the example of Greece, where numerous general strikes and mass social unrest has not succeeded in stopping the austerity—does not bode well. It was in this context that Rhode Island’s public employees were, as previously noted, bulldozed. The problem now is that the very foundations of the old system have crumbled and been condemned, and no new structure built on them stands a chance.
In one way, the Great Rhode Island Pension Robbery is simply a question of stealing from the poor to feed the rich, a basic Wall Street smash-and-grab operation. It would seem a simple solution: tax the rich! As Homer Simpson would say, “in theory, communism works.” Yet in another way, the question is much more difficult, because it’s material. The rich are now so much richer in relative terms than at any time in living memory, and to get to that point they had to not only defeat us, but to imprison our hearts and minds. The weight of their accumulated loot is now so great that the freeing of our minds looms as a monumental obstacle. The task before us is not simply to fight for the greater taxation of the rich; it cannot be to restore a pension system whose time has long since passed. Rather, it must be to formulate a vision for a thorough-going social transformation, one that posits human need and solidarity above individual gain, competition, and corporate profits. This vision must then be translated into an actual program for change, one that calls for direct action, and that by moving people into action, convinces them of the necessity of that transformation.
What is the range of possibility? What we’ve been doing so far has not worked. We need a serious shake-up of all existing relations and institutions. A “no” vote on the settlement by any one of the membership blocs will be a shock to the process, but one that we produced. It will definitely produce a crisis for the labor bureaucracy headed into the fall elections, where the unions are once again stupidly throwing all their eggs into the Democratic Party’s basket. Could it raise the prospect of an independent political vision and organization for the labor movement? Could it at least raise the prospect of independent action by public workers to stop the attacks on the public sector and the ravages of austerity? Voting “no” may not get us any closer to better pensions in this generation. But it might just open the space for us to discuss the necessity of and the plan for turning this system on its head.
UPDATE: It’s no rumor that private-sector unions want to endorse Raimondo. In fact, it’s already happening.