City unions launch effort to kill pension reform in Harrisburg

Pension reform remains the issue of the day, with state House members expected to vote Sept. 8 on a bill that municipal union leaders equate to the squelching of the collective bargaining process.

At noon today, six City Council members - Darrell Clarke, Joan Krajewski, Brian O'Neill, Curtis Jones Jr., William Greenlee and Jannie Blackwell - met privately for about an hour to get up to speed on House Bill 1828. There were no decisions to be made, although Council members began speculating whether Philadelphia's House delegation will uniformly back the bill, as did the Senate delegation last week.

The  four municipal unions are hoping they don't. Efforts are ongoing by them to either strip the pension reform measures - which would freeze benefits for current members and reduce benefit costs for new hires by 20 percent - or to at least amend the bill to make it more palatable.

The firefighters union, meanwhile, has sent a letter to every House member, taking aim at Mayor Nutter's doomsday "Plan C" budget, which calls for 3,000 city layoffs.  "And we ask you to remember that the only person alleging doomsday here is Mayor Mike Nutter – the same Mayor who proposed to gut Firefighter pensions a year ago, and who apparently has convinced the General Assembly to do his bidding (and shoulder the blame)."

Here's the full letter.

Dear Representative;

I am writing to you on a matter of critical importance to Philadelphia 4,000 active and retired Firefighters and Paramedics and their families. Each day we risk our own lives to protect Pennsylvania’s citizens and property. But today, perhaps more than ever, we need YOU to protect us.

On Wednesday, August 26 – after no public hearings and less than 72 hours of consideration – the Pennsylvania Senate passed an amendment to House Bill 1828, which had originally been intended to provide Philadelphia limited and temporary sales tax and pension relief. The house version of HB 1828 was unanimously supported by Mayor Nutter and by Philadelphia’s Firefighters, Police Officers and other public employees, as a pragmatic and temporary tool to help City navigate the current down economy.

But the amended version of the bill (Printer No. 2609), rammed through the Senate late Wednesday, turned that tool into a weapon that will undoubtedly harm Firefighters and their families. If approved by the House and signed by the Governor, HB 1828 will hurt municipalities, their employees and taxpayers across the Commonwealth – all under the dishonest guise of "pension reform."

Among its many sins against public-safety workers, the Senate Bill:
1. Eliminates collective bargaining over retirement benefits for Firefighters in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania.
2. Forces new Firefighters in Philadelphia and elsewhere to bail out pension plans by accepting significantly lower pensions.
3. Forces the turnover of locally-controlled pension funds to the state, to be managed and invested by politically-connected cronies.

Make no mistake, the Senate version of HB 1828 is not a “reform” bill that reins in overly generous pension benefits. In Philadelphia, our pensions are far from generous. Firefighters in Philadelphia contribute from our paychecks to our pension fund every two weeks throughout our entire career. At retirement we get a pension that is immediately frozen, and will never increase with the cost-of-living. We receive only a few years of medical coverage, despite the exposure-related diseases that follow us into our retirements. And, unlike most people, we are not eligible for Social Security. Our City pension is the only thing between us and poverty. And with some of our widows forced to survive on a pension of merely $250 a month, our pensions can’t even guarantee that.

The Senate’s version of HB 1828 makes our already modest pensions even worse. It eliminates meaningful bargaining over pensions forever. And it cuts benefits for new hires by 20%, for absolutely no reason. I guarantee you that new Police Officers will not face 20% fewer bullets as they keep citizens safe. And new Firefighters won’t face a 20% lower risk of a roof collapsing on them when trying to save a life, or a 20% lower risk of contracting the too-many cancers that are related to our extremely dangerous work. Yet, under the Senate’s hurried bill, the sacrifices that we make every day will forever be worth 20% less. That's just not right. Firefighters deserve better for the sacrifices we make.

Since Wednesday’s vote, some Senators have attempted to excuse their actions by explaining that they felt compelled to act to avert “doomsday” in Philadelphia. Some House members may feel the same way. Believe me, Firefighters understand the difficult choices that the City currently faces. After all, if jobs are lost, they will be ours.

But before rushing to judgment like the Senate, we urge you to consider whether the threat of “doomsday” is credible, or whether gutting pensions is necessary to avoid anything. And we ask you to remember that the only person alleging doomsday here is Mayor Mike Nutter – the same Mayor who proposed to gut Firefighter pensions a year ago, and who apparently has convinced the General Assembly to do his bidding (and shoulder the blame). So we think that credibility is an issue here. Cries that the sky is falling must be judged critically, and should never be permitted to justify hurried and extorted cuts that will do real harm to Firefighters and our families by taking away our most basic right to bargain over our futures.

On the issue of pension reform, Philadelphia’s Firefighters are 100% behind real pension reform, that cleans up mismanagement, kicks out the political cronies, addresses longstanding state aid deficiencies, and gives public employees and taxpayers the fair shake they deserve. I am happy to discuss those reforms with you. And I am sure you will agree that any meaningful pension reform must be developed the right way, in the light of day, with input by all stakeholders and full deliberation by the General Assembly. Obviously, that has not happened with HB 1828.

Because of this, Philadelphia’s Firefighters and Paramedics urge you to VOTE NO on concurrence of HB 1828 in the House. We continue to support the original house version of the bill, and in doing so we stand in 100% solidarity with Police Officers, Social Workers, Librarians and other public servants in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania.
So thank you for your consideration of this important issue, thank you for your support for public safety officers, and thank you (hopefully) for standing with Philadelphia’s Firefighters and our families on this critical issue of retirement security.

Bill Gault, President Philadelphia Local 22 International Association of Firefighters

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