The Politics of Pension Reform, Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about the various political forces bearing down on members of the General Assembly as they decide how to vote on Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Governor Lincoln Chafee's tough pension reform package.

Among the factors they must consider: public employee unions have demonstrated they are willing and able to pick off Democrats, in primaries, who cross them.

But the unions face a political reckoning of their own with the pension fight. I wrote about this at some length last month in a piece titled "Organized Labor's Big Moment." But now that the actual plan has landed, that reckoning is cast in stark relief.

Labor was a key supporter of Chafee in the gubernatorial contest last year. And a month ago, when it seemed clear that the governor was entertaining reform not to the unions' liking, there was some loud grumbling. Now, there is something like a full revolt. Labor leaders feel the governor has betrayed them.

"The promises that Lincoln Chafee made, in writing, to NEA were simply broken," says Patrick Crowley, of the National Education Association-Rhode Island teachers union. "And they appear to be broken...before the first anniversary of his election."

Crowley tells me it was Chafee's position on pension reform, more than any other factor, that tipped labor in favor of the independent over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio. And now, a relationship built largely around that single issue has been severely strained.

Is it beyond repair?, I ask. "I hope not," says Crowley. "Four years is a long time."

But if the rupture is real, and the Democratic-dominated legislature passes the Raimondo-Chafee package largely intact, it's hard to know where, precisely, the unions go from here; Crowley says NEA officials actually mused, in recent days, about what Republican candidates they might endorse in the future.

It's hard to imagine the unions actually going that route (or, frankly, any GOP candidate accepting their backing). But the point is clear: Democrats, Crowley insists, shouldn't take unions for granted.

The trouble is, it's hard to make the Democrats responsive to labor when they don't really need unions to win elections; the Republicans, after all, have been all but irrelevant in Assembly races for years.

Only the pick-off of Democratic incumbents in primaries can really get the party's attention. And it's not clear that labor can consistently do that on a large scale - or would want to.

But don't count out labor, yet. Union officials, who began mobilizing their membership around the pension issue in earnest last month, plan an advertising blitz in the coming days (don't expect much in the Providence Journal - unions officials object to the paper's handling of the issue). And they're hoping the voices of individual employees and retirees can make a real difference.

Rhode Island unions have made increasing use of alliances with other organizations in recent years. And they're particularly hopeful about the clout of the state's AARP chapter, which is weighing in against cuts to retirees' pension benefits. Union members and old folk vote. They'll be sure the General Assembly is reminded of that fact.



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