As Unions Reel, Pension Reforms Gain Support

The labor movement was dealt a few blows last night, and not just in the whirlwind recall election in Wisconsin.

In California, voters in San Diego and in San Jose decided to change pension rules, approving ballot initiatives that would reduce benefits for public workers. Support for the ballot questions was definitive, despite unions' opposition, indicating that voters there view pensions as a key contributor to inflated budgets.

In an era of austerity, concerns about pensions are finding a place not just in Republicans' playbooks. Scott Walker, the Republican governor who survived the Wisconsin recall last night, has noted that pension reform efforts have taken root in liberal Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and California, too. Walker, of course, got into the recall battle by curbing some collective bargaining rights of state workers.

In Massachusetts last year, Gov. Deval Patrick has signed a pension bill that raised the minimum retirement age to 60, from 55. His newer effort aims to stop public workers from getting unemployment money while they're getting pension payments.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who has already signed a pension reform bill into law, is seeking to let cities cut benefits to retired public workers. He's drawn opposition from unions that have said they'd fight the proposal in court if necessary, while mayors have said the measure would alleviate budget pressures.

And in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has tried to cut budgets by raising the retirement age for most government workers to 65 from 62, and lower the amount of money given to workers after retirement to 50 percent of their salary, from 60 percent. The left-leaning minds on the New York Times editorial board wrote that "those changes make sense."

Christina Tobin, the vice president of Taxpayers United of America, a group that pushes for pension reform across the country, said she has seen support for pension reform from a range of voters that includes members of the Tea Party and factions of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"Pensions are the number-one budgetary problem in the United States," Tobin said. "The system is unsustainable. If we don't reform it, the system will collapse and the paychecks will stop coming."

Advocates for changing pension rules across the country see signs that their movement is getting attention. Jon Coupal, the president of a taxpayers association, told The New York Times after last night's votes in San Diego and in San Jose that "the appetite for pension reform in California is huge," and that he hoped the measures would inspire other cities to act.

That would probably lead to more fights with union leaders. One of the biggest faces of the labor movement, Richard Trumka, the president of the powerful AFL-CIO, reacted to the Democrats' loss in Wisconsin last night by telling reporters on a conference call that "the new model that Wisconsin's working families have built won't go away after one election; it will only grow."

"Working families are more committed than ever to creating an economy that works for all," he said.