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Is Cutting Benefits For Public Workers Actually Wage Theft? Reframing the Right's Attacks On Unions

"Wage theft" has been a helpful frame for labor unions to fight for their workers' rights. Could it be applied to attacks on public workers' pensions--or Social Security?

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Federal pensions are retirement benefits provided to public employees as part of the terms of employment. They are funded jointly through government and employee contributions, which means that, yes, public employees are paying into pension funds and receive benefits statements informing them about the kinds of benefits they can expect during retirement. Public employees work with the expectation that they will receive retirement benefits, and plan accordingly. Many don't receive Social Security benefits and rely on their pensions as a source of retirement income.

Living on a federal pension is far from glamorous. In California, California Public Employees Retirement System members receive, on average,  50 percent or less of their peak pay in retirement. Former public employees are not out buying yachts and luxury homes on their benefits payments. In two-income households where one employee was in the private sector with no retirement benefits and the other was a public employee, the pension may barely stretch to cover the needs of both partners.

The media is fond of reporting and exaggerating exceptions like unusually high retirement pensions for the very small minority of public employees who made substantial salaries during their time in government service and sometimes benefited from flukes in pension structure. These exceptions become the rule in the eyes of the public, who assume that the retired mail carrier down the street must be hiding a fortune in the bank.

The media frames public employees as greedy, selfish monsters more interested in raking in money than in supporting America. Some news reports include outright lies that bely basic facts, like that public employees actually make less than private sector workers. The media sets up an oppositional relationship between average citizens and federal workers and encourages members of the general public to join the war on public employees. 

This has set the stage for a series of proposals to address the pensions crisis, including suggestions to increase employee contributions as well as cut pension benefits, a practice that turns out to be entirely legal. States are already cutting pension payments

and proposals for more cuts to pensions and benefits are springing up like mushrooms after a spring rain.

Discussions about benefits cuts do not label them as what they really are: Wage theft. Public employees pay contributions out of their salaries into pension funds. They earned that money, they have documentation to prove they earned it, and their employers took it from them as part of the terms of an employment agreement that included pension benefits at retirement. When that money is not made available at the time of retirement, it is not simply a betrayal of a "promise." It is an active renege on a contractual agreement, and it is an example of wage theft.

What appears to be working for the private sector in terms of organizing to combat wage theft may not be as effective for public employee unions, however. Tim Tharp, also with WGAE, discussed the heavy reliance on traditional organizing techniques as part of the wage theft campaign, particularly reliance on regulatory frameworks to enforce worker rights. Pension cuts are technically legal, which makes them much harder to fight.

One option for public sector unions, says Tharp, may be turning to lawyers prepared to drill down through regulations and union contracts to determine whether it's possible to take the matter to court, an option that such unions are no doubt considering. That would be much easier to do with public support, which requires changing the way members of the public think about public sector unions, pensions, and benefits.

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