Standing Up For Pensions

It’s certainly not the fault of union employees that state legislators have broken their promises to fund their pension systems or that Wall Street crashed the economy, costing over 8 million jobs and devastating state budgets.

And yet, all over the country, lawmakers are unfairly demonizing teachers and other public employees, and spreading misinformation about their hard-earned retirement funds. In many places, their efforts have taken employees by surprise – but not in Kansas.

For those educators looking for a little inspiration in the good fight to protect pensions, a little navel-gazing might be in order. Check out what’s happening in the smack-dab center of the United States.

Pension protection in Kansas started years ago, when troubles with state pensions first began to rumble in neighboring states. At that point, leaders from Kansas National Education Association (KNEA) sat down with their counterparts at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to build a joint strategy.

“It started with good people sitting down together, looking at each other and making a pact, saying we’re not going to hurt each other,” said Terry Forsyth, KNEA political director.

That simple promise grew into a formal non-profit organization, “Keeping the Kansas Promise,” which represents more than 280,000 Kansans with public pensions, including teachers, firefighters and police officers. It is also part of a larger coalition, called “Kansas United,” which includes at least 29 unions working collaboratively to protect retirement benefits.

These kinds of coalitions, which present a very united defense on behalf of workers, makes Kansas uniquely positioned to squelch unfair attacks, said Janel Cole, a specialist with the National Public Pension Coalition. “Everybody is at the table that needs to be, and everybody is engaging their membership the way they need to be,” she said.

In other ways, Kansas is no different than many states facing threats to pensions. It has a Republican governor and Republican majorities in both its state House and Senate. Like elsewhere, its legislature will be weighing numerous bills this spring on shifting its pension system from a “defined benefit” system to a 401K-style “defined contribution” system. Just last week, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said “all options” are under consideration as the state seeks to close a projected gap between promised benefits and current revenues.

The current system covers 73,000 retirees and nearly 161,000 active public school, state and local government employees, with the average monthly benefit for retirees at less than $1,100.

“Like in many states, there are negative feelings about public pensions and pensions – until you find out…nobody is getting big bucks,” says Forsyth.

But that $1,100 a month is still very important to public employees, many of who have been contributing to their public retirement funds for 20 or 30 years and forgoing Social Security as part of the deal. And, because of the coalition-building that has been done by local unions, they’re ready and willing to advocate for themselves.

Last year, when the pension-haters in the Kansas state legislature realized that they faced 300,000 angry public employees “they backed down,” Forsyth said. “We had a major letter-writing campaign and that stopped them.”

This year, the public employees are spreading their message even more widely. With a grant from the National Public Pension Coalition, of which NEA is a partner, the Kansas coalitions are taking their message to the public. In many communities, especially small, rural ones, the public needs to understand that the economic health of their communities depends on the economic health of their teachers, police officers, hospital workers, and corrections officers.

“I compare it to the Battle of Britain,” says Forsyth. “We’re fighting every way we can.”