Detroit retirees denounce ‘Grand Theft Pension’

City retirees take their message to May Day march.WW photo: Kris Hamel

City retirees take their message to May Day march.
WW photo: Kris Hamel

June 18 — Retired city of Detroit workers continue to oppose deep cuts to their pensions in the face of enormous pressure from the bankruptcy court, politicians and the corporate media.

Rank-and-file committees of retirees continue to find a lot of support for their urging of a “reject” vote on ballots sent to tens of thousands of retired workers or their survivors. However, the “leaders” of retiree associations, most unions, the bankruptcy court’s handpicked “Official Retirees Committee” and both retirement systems boards of trustees have all caved in to the pressure and are urging retirees to vote acceptance of “the lesser of two evils.”

In early June, Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, gave a highly publicized speech telling retirees to accept his “Grand Bargain” as their only real choice. It involves charitable contributions from private foundations and corporations of over $450 million plus a $195 million lump sum from the state of Michigan to supposedly help avert closure of the Detroit Institute of Arts and allegedly help city retirees’ pensions.

However, the media have covered up the fact that this plan would cut every pension by 4.5 percent plus take additional cuts up to 15.5 percent in a “clawback” of what Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr claims was excess interest paid to workers who enrolled in the annuity savings plan run by the pension system. Ending the 2.25 percent cost of living each year will cost retirees around 18 percent more over their lifetimes. Ending medical coverage to non-Medicare-eligible (under 65) retirees is costing those retired workers at least $500 more to buy health insurance. The city provides $125 toward this.

The Detroit Free Press ran a front page editorial on June 12 pushing the same message: Accept these cuts or the result will be worse. Some retirees are threatened with loss of their entire pension.

Four mass meetings called by the General Retirement System board were held across metro Detroit on June 5 and June 12. Hundreds of pensioners attended, only to be barraged by the same threats. Retirees handing out “Vote NO” leaflets were physically barred from the first meeting. At least one vocal opponent was carried out of the hall for speaking out.

The leaflet labeled the pension cuts as “Grand Theft Pension.” Persistent retirees leafleted incoming cars and throughout the parking lot, finally forcing the Pension Board organizers to allow leaflets inside. Dozens of “Hands Off My Pension — Make the Banks Pay” T-shirts were sold and worn by angry retirees.

Major union caves in

June 6 was to be the date for an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25 “Retiree Summit.” For almost a year AFSCME retiree meetings had denounced the way negotiations were going. Ed McNeil, an AFSCME Council 25 leader, had been named to the court-appointed “Official Retirees Committee” and spoken strongly against the attacks on pensions. On Oct. 23, AFSCME had helped organize a rally of more than 1,000 protesters outside bankruptcy court. It was reported that McNeil was opposed to the decision of the “Official Retirees Committee” majority to urge acceptance of the “Grand Bargain.”

On June 5, last-minute notices went out announcing that the AFSCME retiree summit had been canceled. A few days later, AFSCME Council 25 announced it was urging retirees to vote to accept the cuts. Notably, AFSCME Local 207 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 have both bucked the trend and officially urged their members to vote to reject.

The anger and frustration among retirees is deep. Voting to accept the deal, however, would end the legal appeals now before the federal Circuit Court in Cincinnati based on Michigan’s Constitution, which guarantees that public pensions will not be impaired or diminished. Giving up the right to pursue this appeal riles many pensioners.

Activists from the Stop Theft of Our Pensions Committee and the Concerned Citizens, Active Workers and Retirees group are not just promoting a vote to reject. Retired workers are getting some radio interviews and explaining that voting down the “Grand Bargain” alone is not enough. A mass movement in the streets and in the courts, similar to the Civil Rights movement, is needed to stop the assault on public pensions.

The collapse of the recognized leaders of retirees and active workers not only endangers Detroit’s workers, but also helps open the door to a national assault on public pensions if the bankruptcy court approves the plan in this largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. With balloting ending by July 11, it is an uphill struggle by retirees to protect their modest incomes and generate a movement strong enough to turn the attack around.

At a picket line in front of Chase Bank and Quicken Loans offices in downtown Detroit on June 6, retired worker Yvonne Jones announced to the crowd, “I am not a revolutionary. I am a grandmother.” But this battle is turning grandmothers and grandfathers into militant combatants, fighting for their lives.

Sole is a Water Department retiree and Stop Theft of Our Pensions Committee organizer.