PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday April 25th, 2013, 12:31pm

Teachers, Union Members Hold Pension Rally At Harper College During Debate (VIDEO)

Teachers and other union members rallied outside a public pension forum hosted by the Daily Herald and Reboot Illinois at Harper College Wednesday in order to give teachers a voice in the pension debate. Progress Illinois was there for the rally.

Teachers and other union members rallied outside a public pension forum hosted by the Daily Herald and Reboot Illinois at Harper College Wednesday in order to give teachers a voice in the pension debate.

"Illinois does not have a pension crisis. Illinois has a debt crisis, and there’s a big difference," said David Richmond, suburban vice president of the Cook County College Teachers Union, Local 1600. “The state took money from our pensions, and now they don’t want to pay it back. Any other circle, that’s called theft."

The state is about $100 billion behind in liabilities towards its five public employee pension funds, and for 60 years, Illinois has failed to pay it’s share into the Teachers' Retirement System, said Roger Sanders, a retired school superintendent and activist.

“Our political leaders have decided to, once again, abandon us," he said. "They’ve decided not to seriously consider the wide range of possible solutions. They’ve decided that retirees, active teachers and future teachers must bear the burden of solving a problem created not by us, but by our political leaders."

Those at the rally offered up ways to raise state revenue and called for closing corporate tax loopholes, enacting a speculation sales tax on contracts traded on Illinois' exchanges and switching to a graduated rate income tax.

The demands were listed on a petition circulated at the rally, which also called upon the Illinois General Assembly to enact an "iron clad guarantee" of pension payments.

Illinois cannot cut its way out of this problem, Richmond said.

He added that Illinois taxpayers have already saved billions of dollars because of the state's pension programs.

"The state took us out of Social Security. The state does not pay into Social Security," he said. "If we had been in Social Security all along, the state would have had to raise taxes decades ago. You don’t get to take pension holidays from Social Security. The Feds will come and get you. Any other employer does not have the same opportunities to take money from employees the way the state of Illinois does."

Fred Klonsky, a retired teacher and blogger, talked with Progress Illinois about the rally and discussed some solutions that could help fix the state's pension crisis:

Elizabeth Minicz, a professor at Harper College who is set to retire in August, said she's "disgusted" that Springfield lawmakers are trying to take their pension funding frustration out on public employees.

“If somebody comes up to me and says, 'Should I consider teaching? Should I consider working in the public service?' I would say, 'I'd think twice about it, and I'd certainly get the hell out of Illinois,'" she said.

Minicz added that her life's work has been centered around teaching and trying to create social justice for her students as well as herself.

"I feel that these attacks on our pensions are not only against organized labor, they’re also attacks against women who bear children, and many of you have wives who bore children," Minicz said. "And the costs of childcare in the United States is so shameful compared to other industrialized countries that we should just hang our heads and say, 'Oh my god. What have we done?'"

Speakers at the rally called out State Reps. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) and Thomas Morrison (R-Palatine), two of the three panelists at Wednesday's forum, for their pension reform proposals, which are more like a "Wall Street-style pension ripoff," said John Laesch, co-chair of Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice.

Laesch mentioned the Nekritz-backed bill, HB 3411, and the Morrison-backed bill, HB 3033, which, he says, both work to take pension funds and move them into "low-performing, highly profitable" 401(k)-style plans.

The Morrison bill looks to move government workers into 401(k)-style plans, while also freezing the state's defined benefit program. And if the Nekritz bill were to become law, new members would be part of a new "Tier III" made up of both a traditional pension and a 401(k)-style fund.

But investment advisers, 401(k) administrators and mutual fund managers "all get a piece of the action," he said.

“We know what the motive is driving these wealthy hedge fund managers, and we know why they’re doing it,” Laesch said.

Other components of Nekrtiz and House Republican Leader Tom Cross' bill include reducing the cost of living adjustment, COLA, for all retired members, while also delaying COLA payments until age 67.

Union members said the bill would make it impossible for retirees to keep up with the rising cost-of-living in retirement, among other concerns.

"How can you in good conscious propose these bills that obviously violate the Illinois State Constitution [and] the Constitution of the United States of America," asked William Naegele, legislative representative for the Cook County College Teachers Union, Local 1600. "How can you do that in good conscious?”

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