Ill. unions launch ad campaign to protect pensions

May 3, 2011 3:32:29 PM PDT
Plans to reform the state's pension system are not sitting well with some unions representing state employees.

They've launched a television ad campaign about a reform movement that they say will rob them of money they've earned. Illinois' largest public employee unions -- representing hundreds of thousands of workers including teachers, police officers and firefighters -- have joined forces for a major media campaign aimed at protecting their pension benefits.

The 30-second ads feature Illinois public employees or actors posing as such. One ad says: "I worked my whole life, I gave money from every paycheck, I never missed a payment because they promised us a modest pension."

Public worker unions, under the banner We Are One Illinois, will spend over $1 million airing the commercials statewide. They want the public to meet the potentially newest losers in the so-called pension reform movement.

"The average pension for an Illinois public employee is $32,000 a year, and eight in 10 do not have social security to fall back on," said Anders Lindall, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSME).

The state General Assembly, which failed repeatedly to fully fund worker pensions during the past quarter century, will consider cutting the retirement benefits of current public employees. Even Gov. Pat Quinn, who's Democratic Party has enjoyed the political and financial support of public employees unions over the years, indicated he'd support cuts if they are constitutional.

"I think it's important for any governor, including me, to look at any proposals that would reform the system," Quinn said.

State budget analysts note that Illinois currently spends $4 billion a year to pay for pensions. By 2015, the obligation will increase to $6 billion. Given current revenue projections, it is estimated that in the long term, Illinois is $70 billion to $80 billion short of the money it needs to pay its pensioners.

"The state doesn't have enough money in its treasury to both fund all the other demands that it has and to fund the pension," said Lawrence Msall, president of the Chicago Civic Federation.

The unions do not say in their ads where the state should get the money to pay for future retiree benefits. The copywriters only stress that there was never anything wrong with the system, that workers paid their share while lawmakers in Springfield did not.

"The pension debt was caused by politicians who failed for years to pay in their share," Lindall with AFSME said.

The television commercials will be accompanied by a non-stop lobbying effort in Springfield during the legislative session which continues until the end of this month. The unions feel especially betrayed by pro-pension reform Democrats, some of whom have used labor's money and votes to win elections.