United States

The War Against ‘Excessive Pensions’

By Bruce A. Dixon

The late Kwame Toure used to say that there was a war in progress, a war against Black people, and that we seemed to be the only ones who didn’t know it. The war at the heart of today’s Black polity has a similar character. It’s war between the Black elite, our own native class of African American cultural and political misleaders, and the rest of us. And since that class of misleaders possesses near-exclusive access to our Black pulpits and newspapers, the radio and TV stations most of us listen to, it’s no surprise that only one side is awake and aware.

Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed is a rising Black star in Democratic political circles who enjoys the favor of big corporate donors like Home Depot, SunTrust and Bank of America, because he is a tireless warrior against, not for, the interests of most Black people in Atlanta and around the nation. Reed is widely credited in corporate media like the Wall Street Journal for having solved the intractable problem of ballooning pensions for city workers, which they say threatened to bankrupt the city.

If there had been an actual Black press to explain this for us, the explanation would have went something like this....

Generations of teachers, city, county and state government workers, in their negotiations with bosses—in Atlanta those have been Black mayors the last 40 years—agreed in good faith to forgo immediate wage increases now in favor of pensions and in some cases medical benefits later in their retirement, which both they and their employers were to jointly pay for. But although cities, states and school districts took the money out of workers checks each month, they never felt obliged to keep their promise and pay their part of those pensions. To do so might have required higher taxes, especially on the wealthiest individuals and corporations who over the last decades have paid a lower and lower share of their wealth in taxes, while governments have been forced to borrow operating money from them at loan shark interest rates. This is the pattern followed by hundreds of U.S. cities and school districts, and probably most of its states.

Pension managers mostly said that not funding the pensions was OK because they could make smart enough investments to compensate for the money public employers weren’t putting into those pension funds. The crash of 2007 and 2008 made lots of their smart investments worthless.

Now big city mayors, governors and school district execs are not about to go to the public and to the wealthy and say “since we didn’t keep our promises all these years we’ve got to tax you heavily to pay these pensions we know we should have been funding all along...” Instead they have to recast their broken promises as “unfunded liabilities” and the retirement benefits previously agreed upon as excessive, greedy, and unsustainable.

Atlanta’s Kasim Reed has been a champion at this. The last Black mayor of Atlanta broke just about every pension promise made to Atlanta city workers by 40 years of Black mayors, and sharply limited retirement compensation for new city workers. In Atlanta most of those city workers are African American. Reed now has his sights on reducing the wages and pensions of Atlanta’s 4,000 transit workers, perhaps as a prelude to privatization or a state takeover.

If the targets here had been Black contractors instead of city and transit workers, there would be a storm of denunciations from Black pulpits and pundits, Black newspapers and commentators. But since the spear chuckers in this war against ordinary Black folks are our own Black leadership class, those leaders are mostly silent. It’s time to dismiss that whole class, and raise up new leaders.

Black Agenda Report, October 23, 2012