Restructuring, not reform.

“Pension reform.”

The words have been floating around the national zeitgeist for several years now.  Politicians such as Scott Walker (or, more closer to my home, former San Jose mayor Chuck Reed) have fanned the flames of public angst  over city, county, and state finances and mistrust of collective bargaining into distrust and anger towards civil servants and government employee unions.Teachers, cops, and firefighters are targeted the most. (In some ways, people feel about teachers and other government employees the way they feel about Congress: they hate them collectively (i.e., their unions), but like their Congressman or the teachers at their schools.)

San Jose voters passed Measure B in 2012, making major cuts to pensions and disability benefits for police and firefighters.  Most of the measure was tossed out by a court (the city is appealing the decision).  The public rhetoric has gotten so nasty, you could not pay me enough to be a cop or firefighter in San JoseAnd, in fact, since the passage of Measure B, and the war on cops’ benefits and pensions began, San Jose has been hemorrhaging police officers at an alarming rate.

Chuck Reed then tried to place an initiative on the 2014 California ballot which would have allowed municipalities to change already vested public pension plans, but withdrew it when the Secretary of State’s analysis of the initiative stated that the proposed constitutional amendment would eliminate certain protections for public employees, including firefighters, police, nurses, and teachers.  Among other things, Reed felt that including those professions would have prejudiced voters against the measure, even though those were the half of the public employees the measure targeted.

To listen to some news sources, the entire reason American cities are in financial trouble is because cops and firefighters are greedy bastards, or, at the very least, stooges for rapacious unions. People seem to forget or ignore that a lot of the financial problems that hit cities coincided with the economic meltdown — local governments’ investments were badly hurt like everyone else’s, not to mention tax revenues.  The meltdown provided anti-union politicians with the perfect cover to undercut police, fire, and teacher pensions and benefits. Libraries and services to the poor were being cut and it was colored as being all the fault of those greedy cops.

And so the fight for “pension reform” was joined. Ignoring the fact that pensions are in fact deferred compensation, and destroying them is effectively refusing to pay workers what they were promised after they have already started doing the work, many politicians and voters still viewed them as fair game. Candidates for public office were asked if they were for or against “pension reform.” Liberal candidates often countered that they wanted to do pension reform by working with police and fire unions to find solutions, only to be labeled as “anti-reform.”

I will state right now that we progressives made a major mistake. Every time we engaged on the topic of “pension reform” without reframing it, we ceded important moral and rhetorical ground we should have held on to. Before even addressing the “how,” we needed to have changed the “what.”

Reform is a loaded word. It implies bad faith at best, or graft at worst: one reforms corrupt governments, or religious organizations. On the other hand, one does not “reform” bankrupt businesses, one “restructures” them.

Are there cases where cities are in trouble and changes in compensation need to be made? Absolutely.  But that does not mean that the original agreements were graft-driven gifts to greedy public servants.  It means that, like any other entity in financial straits, a city must negotiate with its creditors — in this case cops and firefighters — to reach an equitable solution.

Any time any progressive engages in talking about “pension reform” without immediately cutting off discussion to say “what we need to be talking about is pension restructuring,” they’ve already surrendered half the field. Our hardworking public servants deserve better than that. They may end up losing compensation, but the very least we can do is not buy into the implication that they’re avaricious.

As far as I go, though, I think that  if you are willing to risk a bullet, or run into a burning building, or have to deal with the aftermath of terrible car accidents and gruesome suicides, you should have whatever pension you want.

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