Hang with me this morning. I’m going to wander a bit.
The other morning a friend reminded me that we sometimes get so involved in the technical minutiae of school issues that we lose sight of the bigger picture.
Teacher pensions for example.
So, “What’s the deal with teacher pensions?”
It’s part of the Jonah Edelman story (of course!), and I’ll get to how in just a bit.
Why do public service workers, teachers in this case, get state pensions?
Because as a community we have come to agree that teaching is special work. It takes nothing away from the value of other work. But work for the common good is different. We take on the task of teaching our community’s children. It is hard work. It can be immensely satisfying work. And it serves a higher good.
Historically, as a society we have generally agreed that although teachers do not get compensated as well as those in the private sector, we did not expect our teachers to work for less now and be left to live in poverty in their retirement years.
Up until now when a teacher began their career, they and the community agreed that while the teacher will not get rich from what they do, they will be provided with a package that includes deferred compensation in the form of a decent pension.
As it happens, the state has not kept its part of the agreement. While teachers pay into their pension plan at nearly 10% of their salary, the State of Illinois has rarely paid its promised share of 6%.
As a result, the pension system is not nearly fully funded.
But it is not in crisis. Even if nothing changes, the system can continue to pay out to retired teachers what is owed to them for many, many years.
Some in the legislature have claimed it is a crisis. But as Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, has taught us, a crisis for some is an opportunity for others.
And so the social (and real) contract between the community and its teachers is under attack.
Corporate money bags, like those in the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, see the underfunding of the pension system as an opportunity to privatize pensions.
Step one in the plan to break the historical social contract with teachers occurred in 2010 when Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan pushed a two tier pension system through the General Assembly. Now any new teacher must work until they are 67 years old and will then receive only 60% of what a presently retired teacher receives from the pension plan.
Step two was attempted in the last session of the General Assembly when Madigan, House Republican leader Tom Cross and Civic Committee President Ty Fahner, crafted a three-tier pension system bill. Overwhelming public opposition forced them to retreat. But they will be back in the Fall veto session to try again.
In the now infamous Aspen presentation by Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman, he describes how he entered into Illinois politics in 2010.
… when Bruce Rauner [apparently Chicago venture capitalist Bruce V. Rauner] … asked, after seeing that we passed legislation in several states including Colorado, that we look at Illinois, I was skeptical. After interviewing 55 different folks in the landscape – the Speaker of the House, Senate President, minority leadership, education advocates … I was very surprised to see that there was a tremendous political opening that I think Bruce wasn’t even aware of.
The Illinois Federation of Teachers, still inexplicably, went to war with Speaker Madigan [Michael J. Madigan, D-Chicago, Speaker of the Illinois House], who Jim cited as a very, very powerful figure – speaker for 27 years with the exception of of a couple years … over an incremental pension reform. And Jim [James Schine Crown, Chicago financier and member of Aspen Institute Board of Trustees, who is at the speakers’ table with Edelman] and many others are diehard advocates for pension reform in Illinois, and the pension reform that happened in 2010 is not the reform that’s needed in Illinois, but it was a first step, only affecting future employees.
The union could have – well, probably should have – thanked Madigan for not going further. Instead, they decided that the $2 million they had been giving him reliably for election campaigns – they would take that away … that they would refuse to endorse any Democrat who voted for that legislation, even those that had been loyal supporters for years. They went to the AFL-CIO trying to get them to do the same.
What was the role of the IEA in this? Edelman doesn’t say.
But I was present at the IEA Representative Assembly in 2010 when then President Ken Swanson went to the delegates and asked for a change in the legislative platform. Until then the legislative platform of the IEA reflected the social contract and said that there could be no compromise on teacher pensions.
Swanson wanted that language removed so that IEA lobbyists could sit at the table to negotiate a reduction in pension benefits with Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton and the General Assembly.
Over some of our objections, the delegates approved the language change.
Days later, in legislative action that took less than 24 hours, the General Assembly passed the two tier pension bill. Although the IEA lobbyists were not invited to the table, the vote by the IEA Representative Assembly was a clear signal to Madigan and others that the IEA would not cause any problems as a result of the pension vote.
As Edelman says, the IEA has a history of being “pragmatic.”
The Illinois Federation of Teachers was irate. They took the position that they would not contribute to the campaigns of legislators who sold out teachers on the pension plan.
But from the IEA there was nothing.
Would things have been different if there had been united political action between the IFT and the IEA? We will never know because the IEA leaders sat on their hands.
This is what Edelman described as a “tremendous political opening.”
We get to see the IEA leadership playing that role again in the SB7 negotiations when they put the screws on the CTU’s Karen Lewis over the Chicago strike language.
We came with a fall back of binding arbitration when we saw that the IEA was willing to do a deal and just focused on Chicago. They, interestingly, pressured the Chicago Teachers Union to take the deal. Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, who’s a diehard militant, was focused on maintaining her sense of her members’ right to strike. Her sense was that binding arbitration was giving away the right to strike.
This takes us up to the present moment. This summer the IEA and the IFT will be meeting with legislative leaders, the Civic Committee and others to talk about the pension bill that will come before the Fall General Assembly session.
With the IEA leadership’s history, what teacher can afford to be sanguine?
Will new IEA President Cinda Klickna be as “pragmatic” as past-President Ken Swanson?
Edelman on the SB7 negotiations:
And so over the course of three months, with Advance Illinois taking the negotiating lead … and Advance and Stand working in lockstep – and that unity’s so important, that partnership … they essentially gave away every single provision related to teacher effectiveness that we had proposed.