Lesson of the Poll, Part Two: Labor’s Failure on Pensions

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The California voting public is an unreliable group of people. But even with that caveat, the results of a new LA Times/USC poll on pensions offer a verdict: labor has failed the state and its members on the question of retirement security.

Specifically, powerful public employee unions have made two big mistakes, one a mistake of commission, the other a mistake of omission. The first: the unions have sought and achieved public pension and retirement benefits that are unsustainably large and create risks for taxpayers. The second: the unions have failed to use their political power in service of the vast majority of Californians -- those who don't work for the government and thus don't receive pensions and are worried about retirement security.

Unions have long had the opportunity to use their influence to demand defined pension benefits and retirement security for everyone. If they had been willing to accept a less generous, more fiscally sound system for their own members, they might have used it as the basis of a retirement system for everybody, private and public sector workers alike. Instead, they juiced their own members benefits and forgot about everyone else.

The result is pension envy. And the best labor leaders seem able to do is whine about this envy and say the legislature should do something, as California Labor Federation chief Art Pulaski does in this LA Times story on the new poll. Pulaski and the labor movement have long had the juice in the legislature to do something about it, if they were so inclined. They weren't.

But it's not too late. The Times quotes David Martinez, 59, a nonpartisan voter who lives in Rowland Heights, as saying: "It's come to the point where the government is paying much more than private industry is. It should be equal." Labor unions have seen that kind of statement as a problem. In fact, it's an opportunity. Martinez is right: public and private retirement should be equal, and they should be equal in a way that promotes security.

If the unions were willing to accept less lavish pensions for workers, they could build a system that provides much more in retirement security for the rest of us. If they keep the same position, their own members will get less -- and the rest of us won't do any better either.

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