Union members rail against pension reform measure

September 3, 2012 6:44:35 PM PDT
The biggest Labor Day picnic in the Bay Area happened in Oakland. Hundreds of union members and their families soaked up the sun, enjoyed live music, and feasted on BBQ. The picnic, however, was only a brief distraction from some serious union concerns. Labor members are especially unhappy with a growing movement by politicians to use their pensions to resolve budget problems.

Symbols of the unions' struggles against the "fat cats" were still around at the Labor Day picnic. Absent were the "Re-elect Obama" signs. "Vote No on Prop 32" posters took their place. That's the ballot measure that would ban corporate and union money from local and state elections.

And on the year's biggest day for unions, there were no political speeches, and only a few politicians. This in a venue that, only seven years ago, hosted President Bill Clinton.

"Absolutely the politicians are trying to erode our power," said Martha Kuhl, a nurse and a longtime union member.

Eunice Harms said what many others were thinking, "I think they don't want to be here. I think they are in hiding."

Very much on the minds of those here are pension reform measures that more and more elected representatives are pushing. Just last week, Governor Jerry Brown reached a pension deal with Democrats that would scale back pension benefits for state public employees. For new workers, it would put a cap on annual payments, increase retirement ages, and require them to contribute more to their pension costs.

Union members say they've become an easy target in a bad economy, "Right now, pensions are an easy target as a way that unfortunately people see as an easy way to solve the budget crisis, which I believe is an error," Alameda County Fire Department Captain Gayle Thomas said.

Union members we spoke with put the blame squarely on the shoulders of politicians, "A lot of it is through the years politicians have not properly funded the pension plans," Teamsters Local 70 member Marty Frates said.

While Teamsters Joint Council 7 member Doug Bloch added, "Nobody is talking about the banks and the foreclosures and the bad loans people have suffered from."

The few local politicians who did show up here agree that pension reforms are necessary, but not on the backs of union members, "If anything we should protect people's pensions and benefits," Oakland city councilmember Ignacio de la Fuente said.

This year union organizers of the picnic made a special point to focus on union solidarity and not political speeches. ABC7 News also heard grumblings from union members about the Democrats, their traditional allies, who are hosting their convention in a right to work state -- a state with the lowest union membership.


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