Monday, May 14, 2012

Illinois Pension Reform

The confrontation between rights and power has a long history.  John Stuart Mill, in his famous essay On Liberty, examined the “struggle between Liberty and Authority… between subjects… and the Government.” A question he might have asked today if he were alive is what should be the limits of power that legislators have over their constituents when some of their decisions border on political despotism?  

No doubt, public employees and retirees have been blamed for the mismanagement of the states’ budgets all across the country.  It is easy to construct victims with a dubious call for “Shared Sacrifice.” Of course, by “Shared Sacrifice,” legislators and executives of corporations mean only middle-class Americans, and especially public employees and retirees.  Rose Ann DeMoro, the leader of National Nurses United, says the wealthy have “created an economy on to themselves without people.” 

To blame public employees for the state’s budget deficits is reprehensible. To change public employees’ and retirees' constitutionally-guaranteed pensions with the passage of any law that mitigates benefits (that were earned) and deprives basic rights is an encroachment of the public employees' right to human dignity and justice.  It is a calculated infringement of those essential principles, made evident by the lack of reciprocity and obligation of legislators and their lawyers and businesspersons who will not be made to sacrifice anything.

With the enactment of a pension reform bill, legitimate rights and moral concerns are in jeopardy not only for public employees and retirees, but for every citizen in the State of Illinois. Defrauding a person out of his or her constitutionally-guaranteed rights and benefits violates a most significant interest in morality and ethics and in basic legal principles of both the State and U.S. Constitutions that protect every citizen. Attempting to find ways to break those promises by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago’s Sidley Austin LLP is a costly, dangerous effrontery and precedent to set in motion.

In a proposed world of freedom, justice, and peace, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948. Article 23 of the document states that “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable [compensation] ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity…”

What public employees and retirees must do now is defend their rights and ensure the aforementioned proclamation. We can never become complacent in our belief that justice exists because policymakers can be trusted to make ethical and legal decisions for the rest of us; moreover, we can never become indifferent to political power and what exorbitant wealth can buy.  As Bill Moyers said, a “democracy is on the auction block, [when it is] subject to the highest bidder.” Citizens United and “We Mean Business” epitomize what money can buy, and what it can destroy.

Although we can infer that policymakers will often pass laws for their own advantage, most of us still adhere to the belief that the legislators’ duty to act justly stems from their duty to keep promises. (We should recall that despite their pledges, the legislators’ criteria for justice are their consideration for what is most expedient for them—their re-election, which is often concealed by a hypocritical concern for the general welfare of the state’s financial condition). 

Undoubtedly, state employees’ pensions are not generally viewed as in the best interest of the well-being of a legislator’s constituency.  Many people believe that public pensions serve no purpose, except solely for public employees' and retirees' enviable, financial promises.  So how should we argue then for the expediency of such a right?  Mortimer Adler once stated: “Is being unjust to a minority of citizens beneficial as a means for the majority’s attainment of happiness?”  Moreover, Thomas Jefferson asked a long time ago: “Should not the minorities [of individuals] possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect?” 

Though all of us claim certain beliefs as truths, we must remember that we cannot abdicate our right to representation in a decision-making process that attacks only us. It is up to us to secure our future by opposing the unfairness of any pension reform. It is our challenge to defend our dignity with stubborn resolve.  It is our primary task to enlist every citizen in a unification of will to protect our rights, as they are benefits earned for our life-long labor.  This undertaking forestalls our pro-active and continual engagement with the Illinois General Assembly and our re-education of the misinformed public. 

Indeed, fortitude and knowledge are our power, and this resilience and “knowledge must [become our] action” (Sophocles).  Our collective financial fate must not be determined by prejudicial legislation.  Both public employees and retirees are intrinsically bound to one another in this regard.  As Martin Luther King eloquently stated, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”    

Let us follow King’s message of “direct action” and unify our efforts to confront the struggle we have with the powerful interests of the privileged elite in Illinois; let us “arouse the conscience of not only our colleagues but of our communities” and expose the unfairness and hypocrisy of pension reform that will rob us of our constitutional rights and benefits.

Let us make our goal the preservation of justice and self-worth for all workers. “We Are [truly] One” when we unite and fight against unfairness and inequality in the State of Illinois, when we rally together to un-elect policymakers who support unconstitutional pension reform, and when we reach out to those in our communities who are overwhelmed and offer them hope for a better future.  To do these things is to act upon principles that we believe are so valuable that to do nothing would be a greater injustice.     

-Glen Brown


  1. Excellent Article...all teachers should email this to our Senate and Legislators.

  2. Who is this man, Madigan, and those who think like him, to be looking for ways to subvert the law of the State of Illinois? Who are the big-shot businessmen on this Chicago committee? What moral right do they have to be in Springfield “advising”, and influencing legislators to cheat thousands of Illinois employees of sustenance already earned?
    The focus of this debate-that-should-not-be is on the irrelevant machinations of people who seem bent on taking that which is not theirs. The pandering politicians who stand before the public stating a need for public pension “reform” for those already retired, are not disguised by the cut and cost of their suits. The focus of this discussion, as in any consideration of financial obligations, should be on a course of action to meet those obligations.
    Of course, new rules for newly hired public employees can be made. A person who has yet to invest in a career may chose or not chose to sign on to any set of rules. In my opinion, the State changes that have already been made regarding teachers are ill advised, and I believe the future of Illinois education will prove me right. However, with regard to money already earned there can be no equivocation. Payment in full is required.

  3. Teachers' Pensions

    Is Law Real and Meaningful? Is Honesty Still a Virtue?
    My wife, my friend, worked as a 7th grade math teacher in Northern Illinois for 37 yrs. During that long span of time she always met the state requirements for updating her education. During that time, she earned two masters degrees for a total cost of $34, 000, only a small part of which was reimbursed by her school district. The pay scale in her district was not amongst the highest. In fact, it was, with some fluctuation, below the half-way mark for our area. She worked hard. She worked conscientiously. She felt an obligation to give her students her best.
    Often in the early years of her work, we discussed seeking employment in a higher paid district, but always concluded that being happy in one’s work is more important than maximizing earnings. In short,
    we felt we had enough. I wish to impress upon the reader, however, that our concept of enough included the State of Illinois contract obligations to teachers with regard to pension. A smallish salary today is acceptable with the contractual obligation of a specific pension for tomorrow. Also, the State is not able to pay for work at the same rate as the private sector, but the State would make up the shortfall by deferring payment to the time of retirement. Lest any reader feels the need to comment that people such as ourselves should have saved more of our income over the course our work lives, I tell you all that in every year of our married life, until retirement, we saved, in FDIC protected accounts, not less than 27% of our gross earnings. How many of the people who now attack our pensions can report such financial responsibility in their own lives? Does anyone think that percentage is insufficient in planning for retirement? On a salary the size of my wife’s, the legal promise of a specific pension was a linch pin in our acceptance of her employment. She cannot get her 37 years back. The State got full measure and is absolutely obligated to pay its debt.

  4. Teachers' Pensions continued

    The current rantings demanding public pension “reform” are analogous to the squalling of an individual who, let’s say, contracted for the building of a new garage, and then, part of the way through paying for the finished garage, decided he or she needed a new car. He then decides to tell the garage maker that the new garage is not going to be paid for. Furthermore, this dead-beat then states loudly, but in a seemingly reasonable manner,.that “the obligation” (read that “his obligation”) cannot possibly be fulfilled, and, in a manner indicating moral outrage, that the garage builder is a greedy parasite, despite the fact that the contract was signed by both parties. The squaller then claims that the “lavish” life of the contractor is despicable and should be curtailed as a matter of justice for all.

  5. I agree that this is an excellent article. I will be sharing it with my rep.
    Earl Shumaker