By Dina Martin
With attacks against public pensions escalating, a cadre of retired CTA members is joining forces with Pension Truth Squads that have been barnstorming the state.
Retired teachers in San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, Chico, San Luis Obispo, Riverside and Palm Springs have shared their stories and brought the truth to the public about their retirement plans. They are not alone in fighting back. They join a coalition of retired school employees, firefighters, police and other public employees who are out to set the record straight on public employee retirement.
They are making it known that their pensions are modest — not the six-figure incomes that those who would undo the public employee pension system suggest.
“We would like to dispel some of the myths about public employee pensions,” said Alen Ritchie, a retired Redlands music teacher, who spoke at an event in Riverside in May. “Teachers do not go into the profession for money, but we do deserve a livable retirement.”
The Pension Truth Squad events were launched in San Francisco in April by Californians for Retirement Security and have continued through the summer, garnering the attention of the news media statewide.
“After 38 years of teaching Spanish, I received a pension, for which I’m grateful. But that does not make me wealthy,” said Sandra Mack, a retired member of United Educators of San Francisco. “If anyone thinks that a teacher or a school secretary or a custodian or a government worker is living high on the hog, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
California public employees’ contributions to their pensions have climbed from 5 percent to 7 percent and now to 10 percent, and their average public pension is $26,000. Many, including teachers, do not receive Social Security benefits. The average public teacher’s pension in California is $33,000 a year after 27 years of service.
“Our retirement benefits support the local economy,” said Tim Jenkins, a San Diego elementary teacher for three decades, who participated in a Pension Truth Squad news conference in May. “Teachers’ retirement benefits pumped more than $740 million into the San Diego area economy in the 2009-10 fiscal year. These are dollars that support our local businesses and create jobs.”
The Truth Squads have also called attention to the out-of-state billionaires and right-wing extremists with Tea Party ties who are driving the assault on California’s middle class. Instead of ballot box proposals that would force public workers into risky 401(k) retirement plans, decisions regarding public pensions should be made at the bargaining table, the coalition maintains.
“Now that I’ve retired, I’m grateful for my teacher’s pension, which I spent 47 years contributing to,” said Carol Roberson, a retired member of the Fresno Teachers Association, who spoke at an event in Fresno in July. “I’m not some fat cat or Wall Street banker, but I do have some peace of mind knowing my retirement is secure. And by the way, that’s without the benefit of Social Security, since teachers in California are not permitted to receive Social Security.”
The California State Teachers’ Retirement System, with a portfolio valued at $154.2 billion, is the largest teacher pension fund in the United States. CalSTRS administers a hybrid retirement system, consisting of a traditional defined benefit, cash balance and defined contribution plans, as well as disability and survivor benefits. CalSTRS serves California’s 852,000 public school educators and their families from the state’s 1,600 school districts, county offices of education and community college districts.
Also included in Californians for Retirement Security are state employees such as education support professionals who are members of the Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS). The systems operate differently and have some separate issues, but together they make a strong case for preserving a secure retirement.
Retired Chico middle school teacher John Watson said during a June news conference, “The fact that teachers, firefighters and other public servants have secure pension plans is not the problem. The problem is that other workers do not. Instead of attacking teachers and public servants over our modest retirement benefits, we should be focusing our discussion on ways to create better retirement options for everyone.”
Retired teachers are not the only CTA members who should be concerned. Public employee pensions have taken the stage front and center in California and throughout the United States over the past year. Although there are no state pension reform initiatives threatened imminently, the issue is not likely to blow over soon. At least one pension reformer, former Schwarzenegger adviser Dan Pellissier, is “guaranteeing” a measure for the November 2012 ballot.
More resources can be found on CTA’s website at www.cta.org/retirement or the Californians for Retirement Security website, letstalkpensions.com and Facebook page, www.facebook.com/LetsTalkPensions.
EDITOR’S NOTE: At press time, Secretary of State Deborah Bowen gave the go-ahead for signature-gathering to begin on three antiunion initiatives. One would increase the retirement age for public employees to 65, one would increase the income tax on pensions in excess of $100,000 to 15 percent and higher, and another would eliminate bargaining rights for public employee unions altogether.