September 8, 2013
We pension critics have to admit it. Though public opinion is now shifting a bit towards pension reform, it’s a different story in Springfield where reform opponents are far ahead. That’s thanks to superior negotiation strategy by unions and the politicians they influence. Here’s what savvy negotiators do and why reform opponents excel:
•Smart negotiators cry a river over things that mean little to them, tricking opponents into thinking they’re getting concessions. The only material pension reduction on the table is a change to the automatic three percent annual increase most pensioners get (euphemistically called a “cost of living increase”). Nobody can defend that automatic increase and unions know that, and the recent draft proposal to modify it would shave only nine percent off the unfunded pension liability. Yet that’s the big “concession” we always hear about.
•Smart negotiators bury their true goals under those phoney concessions. Unions know full well their pensions are exorbitant and serious cuts are not on the table, so that’s not their concern. They just need to get the pensions funded, as quietly as possible. So, their real goal is to pass “guaranties” of appropriations to the pensions that will force courts to seize state cash and put the cash into pensions with no further state action. Inclusion of those guaranties is almost certain in anything coming out of Springfield. Their value to unions far exceeds anything they’ve offered to give up, yet the public rarely hears about them because debate has been squelched successfully.
•Smart negotiators load the negotiation room with people biased in their favor. Discussions in Springfield are entirely among legislators with pensions, elected with campaign contributions dominated by union money, and when it all goes to court taxpayers will be represented by counsel with state pensions in front of a judge with a state pension.
•Most importantly, smart negotiators know how to paint the picture that best illustrates their position. They control the narrative and set the ground rules. Most Illinoisans picture “reform” negotiations going on in Springfield, because that’s how it’s been carefully painted. A better label would be “anti-reform,” as the Northwest Herald recently put it. And unions have everybody working off the state’s official numbers, which are bunk as we’ve documented here repeatedly.
Credit this success largely to Senate President John Cullerton, the unions’ go-to guy and chief opponent of real reform. His background explains his success. He cut his teeth as a trial lawyer in the hardball criminal courts at 26th & Western in Chicago. All good trial lawyers learn how to paint the picture conducive to their story and set the narrative on their terms. He starred in high school theater so he knows how to put on fiction. He’s a fantastic impersonator, so he can certainly pretend to be a reformer. Tough, too — good halfback in high school though he’s not a big guy. And wonderfully affable, I should add, when you meet him in person.
So, touché to the unions and hats off to Mr. Cullerton on the skills they’ve shown so far. With everybody waiting for “reform” they must be getting a good laugh. Just don’t think it’s over or that anybody is giving up.