Public Unions Take On Boss to Win Big Pensions - Business Day

COSTA MESA, Calif. - City council elections in this city in southern California are usually quiet. Hot Topics include whether libraries should remain open at night. Campaign budgets are often not top $ 10,000.

Then Jim Righeimer, a Conservative activist and real estate developer, jumped into the race last year.

The city was on the road to insolvency, he warned, because public employee unions had lobbied politicians in the delivery of salaries and pensions. The police chief received $ 298 000 per year in total compensation, Mr. Righeimer said. The deputy fire chief had retired with a pension of more than $ 182,000 a year.

City workers are not fans of Mr. Righeimer, who had been critical of unions of the public for years. Local police and firefighter groups began mailing brochures and towing a sign around the city forward, implying that he had jumped on many debts. Public officials have spent more than $ 100,000 to oppose him, and six unions neighboring regions spent another $ 33 000 approving his opponents.

"They try to drag you into the mud so bad that everyone says," I never want these guys as enemies, I'll just leave them alone, "said Righeimer, who still managed to win a council seat.

Costa Mesa, population 110,000, is California in miniature. For years, unions of public employees across the state have often used their influence - sometimes behind the scenes, but sometimes with Hardball public campaigns - to push for workers' compensation and benefits improved. They exercised power beyond their numbers by donating money to legislators, burnishing references of candidates with endorsements and providing volunteers in the election.

Public employee unions are far from the only group involved in bare knuckles politics. Fierce lobbying firms and managers make campaign donations heavy.

But the workers of the public have a unique relationship with elected officials, because government employees are actually negotiating with the owners they can campaign to vote out of office if they do not get what they want. Private unions, however, generally do not have the power to fire employers of their members.

Even in recent years, as economic difficulties have worsened, the benefits for some government workers have increased. In 2008, for example, in Laguna Beach lifeguards began receiving retirement benefits increased in the state economy began to slow. The next year, rescue chief of the city to retire at age 57 with a pension $ 113 000 per year after 36 years on the job.

Legislators of both political parties have often acceded to union demands to avoid political confrontation or curry favor. They pushed hard choices in the future.

But now, with the cost of past promises to come due, the cost of delayed decision is mounting. California alone needs to begin to devote an additional $ 28 billion a year in pensions to state and local government to address an existing deficit, according to a non-partisan - and at the national level, estimates of these losses reach billions in the coming decades.

"We had no idea what we were doing," said Tony Oliveira, who as supervisor of Kings County, in central California, voted to increase benefits for employees, and is now on the Board administration of pension funds of the State enormous. "It was probably the worst decision of public policy in the history of the state. But everyone kept saying there was a lot of money. And nobody wants to be responsible if all the cops stop getting paid more in the next town. "

Public employee unions, in their defense, say politicians have unfairly made them scarecrows simplistic responsible for problems that have multiple causes. Not all government employees receive generous pensions, they note. A worker enrolled in public funds of the state's largest pension retiring in 2008 with over 30 years of service received a pension of $ 66,828 per year, on average, a retiree from 20 to 25 years of service has received about $ 34.872. Workers who retire with fewer years public work receive even less.

Moreover, the unions noted that they have improved the lives of millions and stand for workers, who are mostly middle class, at a time when many families are losing ground financially.