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By William McQuillen
WASHINGTON - Leaders of the largest U.S. union of public-sector workers are vowing to fight efforts by state and local governments to balance their budgets with cuts to employee benefits even as voters have sided with that strategy.
Delegates to the biannual convention of the 1.6 million- member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees meeting this week in Los Angeles, said their members should get what has been promised them.
“When we defend our benefits and retirement security, we’re fighting for the survival of the middle class,” AFSCME’s retiring president, Gerald McEntee, said in remarks prepared for his keynote address at the Los Angeles Convention Center. “And when we stand up for collective bargaining, we are fighting for the future of America.”
States were $1.38 trillion short of the amount they need to meet their obligations for retiree benefits in their 2010 budget year, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States in Washington released yesterday. That figure, up 9 percent from the year before, includes $757 billion in unfunded pension obligations and $627 billion for retiree health.
Two weeks ago, voters in San Diego and San Jose, California, approved ballot measures to restructure benefits for municipal workers after the cities said they couldn’t afford them. A number of states, including Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, have taken steps to limit collective bargaining for public employees.
“Public employees should have no better retirement benefits than the taxpayers they serve,” San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said in a statement after voters approved a restructuring of benefits.
McEntee, whose successor is scheduled to be selected June 21, reminded the workers that fighting over rights and benefits have gone on for decades, according to the remarks that were distributed after his address, which was closed to reporters.
Threatened cuts to benefits is the subject of workshops at the convention as well as informal discussions among the 5,000 attendees.
“If you paid into it, you should get it,” David Mariasi, a financial aid officer at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, Connecticut, representing Local 2836 at the convention, said in an interview. Mariasi has gone three out of four years without a pay increase with the promise it was helping fund his pension.
Unions representing nurses, correction officers, child-care workers and trash haulers say they are wrongfully maligned by politicians who claim pension cuts are needed to avoid a default.