Executive Director Reports

Political heavyweights team up with corporate elite on pensions

It was a rare sight, indeed, Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan seated alongside Republican Minority Leader Tom Cross prepared to testify before the House Personnel and Pensions Committee.

This political odd couple, who had barely spoken with one another throughout the last session of the legislature, were now joined at the hip, sponsoring a bill to effectively gut future pension benefits for hundreds of thousands of Illinois public employees.

And just in case the line-up needed an enforcer, Tyrone Fahner, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, flanked the two leaders at the witness table.

The Civic Committee doesn't have a high profile among the public, but legislative insiders are well aware of the organization's clout. This exclusive club comprises some of Illinois' wealthiest CEOs.

Led by their Chairman Myles White, board chair of the pharmaceutical giant Abbott Labs, who pulled in a cool $25 million last year, Civic Committee members constitute nine of Illinois' 15 highest-paid execs. Those nifty nine raked in an average of more than $16 million apiece in 2010. Who says times are tough?

You'd think that with those salaries these guys would have little time to think about anything but the companies they run. But, no, they feel an obligation to "give back" to the community, though their idea of "giving" is awfully perverse.

Instead of making a positive contribution to civic life by, say, tutoring a student who needs help or donating a bit of their fortune to a homeless shelter, the cream of the business class launched a campaign to skim the pensions of caregivers, teachers and correctional officers.

Their "contribution" to the civic discourse was a dishonest statewide media campaign seeking to portray our pensions as overly generous and the root cause of underfunded social-service and education programs.

Their front group, "Illinois Is Broke," gave no hint that the effort was underwritten by a corporate outfit with full pockets.

Our union, along with a coalition that included teachers, police and firefighter organizations, countered their deceit with the truth: The average public employee in Illinois has a $32,000 annual pension, and 80 percent of them don't even collect Social Security. We pay our share from every paycheck, unlike the politicians who, after shirking their responsibility for years, are now squawking.

Thanks to the union We Are One Illinois campaign, the Civic Committee's attempt to whip up public fury never materialized. In fact, polling showed widespread sympathy for our point of view.

However in the General Assembly neither public opinion nor even fact and fairness count for much when the legislative leaders want something, especially when backed by the fat cats with big bank balances.

The tide was beginning to turn but legislators were still preparing to make their move on pensions when tens of thousands of angry public employees, who rightfully felt they were being betrayed by their representatives, made phone calls, sent e-mails and got in the face of legislators.

At the end of the day, all of the legislative leaders' political clout and the CEOs' deep pockets couldn't overcome our grassroots campaign.

In a highly unusual move that underscored the business bigwigs' influence, Madigan, Fahner and Cross, who together had drafted the legislation behind closed doors, announced in the closing days of the session that they would not bring their bill to the floor. They promised to convene the affected parties in coming months and craft a new bill.

So instead of being locked out of the room and being served up on the menu, it appears that public employees may now have a seat at the table.

Make no mistake about it, if we are invited, it will be because of the tremendous pressure we exerted on members of the General Assembly.

We took them by surprise. They had us backed up in a goal-line stand.  But unlike football, we weren't limited to 11 players. We fielded a gigantic team of engaged members who were able to stem the tide.

State-funded pensions, as well as those in the city of Chicago and Cook County, have huge underfunded liabilities. There is a very real problem that wasn't created by overly generous pensions. But it must be addressed.

This problem will not be solved on the backs of union members, which is what the legislative leaders and the Civic Committee were aiming for.

If we're at that table, we'll come with ideas for solutions. And if the Civic Committee's going to be there, they'd better bring their wallets.

For too long the rich have gotten off easy. Three quarters of all Illinois corporations pay no corporate income tax. Our state has one of the most regressive tax structures in the nation. The less money you make the higher percent of your income goes to taxes.

That's what should whip up public fury. That's the real scandal, not the well-deserved average pension of $32,000 earned by a retired employee after a lifetime of public service.