Historical civil rights figures weigh in on pension debate

May 23, 2011 8:42:30 PM PDT
Two historical figures in the fight for civil and workers rights were in San Jose Monday to lend the impact of their voices to a debate that's getting louder by the day. Alvin Turner and Baxter Leach were the guests of honor at a union event held at First Christian Church. Ironically the church sits in the shadow of City Hall where the debate over pension reform will hit a fever pitch during Tuesday afternoon's City Council meeting.

Turner and Leach are two of the Memphis sanitation workers who took part in the landmark strike for civil and worker's rights in 1968. Just last month, President Barack Obama inducted the two men into the Labor Hall of Fame. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis after going to the city to support the workers' struggle. It is with that historical perspective that the two men from Memphis weighed in on the debate in San Jose.

"They're balancing the budget on the backs of union workers," says Turner. "If you go back, it will be hard to come back up," says Leach. About 200 people, mostly union members, came to hear the two men speak and gave them a standing ovation.

Many of the union representatives say the struggle the two men overcame continues today in San Jose and elsewhere. Mayor Church Reed is proposing the city declare a fiscal and public state of emergency. It is not only the $115 million budget shortfall sparking the dramatic move but the city's $250 million pension costs which city analysts say will hit $450 million in just five years. The mayor says his proposal will preserve current pensions while reducing future retirement benefits so they are sustainable.

"We have an emergency and we are trying to take action to avert a disaster," says Reed. "The time to issue the warning is before the tsunami arrives and we need to do something."

The president of the city's largest union, AFSCME, is Yolanda Cruz. She says Reed is following in the footsteps of what many describe as the union busting political moves in Wisconsin. "[I] actually think it's worse than Wisconsin style politics because I think he has taken no approach to try to work with the bargaining units," she says. The mayor disputes that claim and says he has been trying to work with all of the various union groups to come up with reasonable solutions.

The bruising battle will continue in the City Council chambers Tuesday afternoon. The debate will be contentious and the vote on the mayor's proposal for a fiscal emergency will be close. One clue on just how close could be found in the audience of Monday's union event. Five members from San Jose's 11-person City Council were in the front row -- Ash Kalra, Kansun Chu, Xavier Campos, Donald Rocha and Nancy Pyle. Until the votes are cast, it could also be argued, they were there to simply show their respect for two men who marched with courage -- Baxter Leach and Alvin Turner.


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