I spent the last few days in Rosemont at the Illinois Representative Assembly as a retired delegate.
There was twenty minutes of debate surrounded by two and a half days of mostly self-deception orchestrated by IEA leadership.
One month before the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of Senate Bill 1 and pension theft, members have no idea what we might expect the inevitable next round of attacks on our pensions will look like. Nor do we know how or if we are prepared to fight the attacks.
The RA did pass a carefully worded, cautious and vetted legislative amendment on opt-out.
I posted it in full yesterday.
The IEA submitted the amendment to the legislative platform because the IEA was not in compliance with the NEA’s Toxic Testing position as adopted at last year’s convention in Denver.
Plus, they were hearing from teachers across the state that PARCC testing was taking a terrible toll on classroom instruction.
And on teachers’ sanity.
But the IEA still refuses to support specific legislation on opting out, such as HB306.
What is a legislative platform if it has no impact on current legislation?
When delegates Conrad Floeter and IEA Region Chair Marsha Griffin attempted a New Business Item calling on IEA to provide training to members for the purposes of working with parents to organize against high-stakes and redundant testing, it was quickly voted down when the leadership made clear its opposition.
For many of the delegates who I talked with there was great frustration with the lack of discussion and debate at this meeting.
Many veterans said it was the least discussion and debate at an RA in their memory.
For many it was particularly frustrating given that we are at a significant crossroads for unions, public education and pensions. The sense of concern and urgency that I hear from teachers in classrooms was not present in the Hyatt Regency O’Hare ballroom.
ShiAnne Shively from Region 5 and Tim Allaire from Region 58 offered up an amendment to the IEA legislative platform that would have replaced:
The Association also remains opposed to any unconstitutional changes to the laws governing retirement benefits that diminish or impair current members benefits. However, the Association supports any proposal that otherwise creates practical and constitutional solutions which sustain the long term viability of the pension systems.
ShiAnne and Tim’s amendment would have substituted that language with:
The Association opposes any diminishment of the pension benefits for current and future members.
After several delegates, including fellow retired delegate Glen Brown, spoke in favor the the amendment, IEA General Councel Mitch Roth went to the podium and announced that if the substitution of the amendment language was approved, the IEA would have to withdraw from the We Are One coalition.
Even for an old veteran like me, this was a stunning statement. It was false but doomed the amendment.
I went to the mic and, still reeling from MItch’s statement, even fumbled his name (Mitch is a guy I have known and have had a cordial relationship for years). But I was still able to get my question out.
“How would this language put us at odds with the other members of the coalition when it is the exact language the coalition’s attorney, Gino DiVito, representing all of, used in his oral argument before the Supreme Court?”
Mitch began to answer when President Cinda Klickna leaned into her microphone and sternly told me to finish my question, apparently failing to notice that I already had finished my question and that the General Counsel was already well into his response.
It was one of many surreal moments of the weekend.
Why was the substitute language important?
Because the IEA leadership had used the “however,” to bargain SB2404. That senate bill was the defensive maneuver that they had hoped would derail the more draconian SB1.
That strategy was wrong on two counts: It still diminished benefits that were protected under the pension protection clause of the Illinois Constitution. And it failed anyway.
Many of us wrote and spoke up at the time that this was a wrong strategy. The Illinois Retired Teachers Association refused to go along with it and were blasted by IEA leadership.
A high-level staffer in the IEA confided to me this weekend that if they had known the courts were going to rule as they did in their Kanerva decision, the IEA would never have pushed for SB2404.
In Kanerva the court ruled that state retirement health care benefits were protected under the pension protection clause and turned away the very arguments that the state argued in defense of SB1.
It is clear that the IEA leadership will never admit before the delegates and their members that they were wrong about SB2404.
When the court rules SB1 unconstitutional, what will happen next?
Rauner’s proposal to move current employees to Tier 2 – meaning a reduction in benefits – will never survive a court challenge.
A bill is already before the legislature to amend the constitution to remove the pension protection clause.
If it passes the legislature the change in the language in the constitution will be placed on a statewide ballot.
There was no discussion of this at the RA, although it is the existential threat to teacher and public employee pensions.
Removing the protection clause will not erase the state’s current $100 billion plus pension liability. It will not directly affect current retirees.
I will likely receive my pension until I die if the system has any money.
The same cannot be said for most of the delegates sitting in the ballroom of the Hyatt or the thousands of public school teachers in the state.
The sad news was that we are not prepared to fight this fight.
The IEA has not won a political battle in 32 years.
That was 1983 when we won the right to collective bargaining in Illinois.
In 2007 I had long discussions with the IEA Executive Director.
He told me that our union no longer had to worry about collective bargaining. He said that the main job of our Association was to stand in the forefront of quality teaching and quality schools.
I disagreed that these were contradictory. We have to fight for our right to collective bargaining every day. We fight for it with every grievance we file. We fight for it with every contract we bargain.. We fight for it when we demand needed services for our students without fear of being fired.
The Executive Director went on to be the senior advisor to Arne Duncan.
Yet his views were not his and his alone. They have come to dominate our Association.
If what we have is an association that is impatient with discussions and debates at its meetings, how will we be armed to fight the biggest threats we have faced since winning the right to collective bargaining?
Collective bargaining and pension rights are now under attack by the most powerful forces in the country.
We are not an army trained to fight.
Hopefully I will keep the pension we fought for.
But the members in the hall are passengers on the Titanic and the captain doesn’t even want them to know or talk about that their might be a leak.
Let alone that we are sinking.