Editorial: Obama's labor secretary needs to back down on pension demand

08/26/2013 12:00 AM

09/05/2013 6:51 AM

When union-busting Gov. Scott Walker stripped most government workers of their collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin two years ago, he exempted police and firefighters, the government workers most popular with the public and Republicans. He also exempted transit workers. An obscure provision in federal labor law known popularly as Section 13(c) guarantees collective bargaining rights for unionized transit workers employed by local governments. If Wisconsin stripped collective bargaining rights from its transit workers, federal labor officials warned Walker, the state would lose $67 million in federal transit funds. Walker backed off.

Union-friendly California Gov. Jerry Brown is no Scott Walker. During his first term as governor 36 years ago, he signed the bill that gave government workers in California collective bargaining rights.

According to U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, the pension reform legislation Brown signed last year impairs bargaining rights of transit workers and therefore violates Section 13(c). The feds are threatening to withhold $4.2 billion in transit funds California is due – $120 million is slated for Sacramento Regional Transit – unless the Legislature and Gov. Brown exempt transit workers from pension reform. Perez has even gone so far as to urge the governor to support a bill pending in the Legislature that would do that.

So far the governor has adamantly and rightly refused. Even with pension reform, government workers in California, including transit workers, retain ample opportunity to bargain for pay, benefits, working conditions and even certain aspects of retirement. Moreover, as the governor's lawyers argued in legal memorandums sent to the U.S. Labor Department, state pension reform was necessary to protect the actuarial soundness of the pension system on which workers rely.

While they have delayed a final decision for talks with Brown's office, so far federal labor officials have refused to back off. The governor is seeking an expedited court hearing to allow both sides to argue the issue and let a federal judge decide.

The stakes are high. In a letter last spring, transit district leaders across the state highlighted the very real harm the federal government fund stoppage threatens. "Our public agencies need these federal funds to buy rolling stock and equipment, to build and rehabilitate facilities, to pay transit workers, to maintain existing jobs and create new employment opportunities and to do the day-to-day maintenance activities that are essential for public safety," they wrote.

California took a modest but important step last year to address a government pension crisis. Rising pension costs had helped push a few local governments into bankruptcy. Others were forced to institute widespread layoffs and curtail vital services. By passing pension reform, the Legislature and the governor were not attacking collective bargaining rights. Quite the contrary, they acted responsibly to protect the solvency of the pension system and to avert catastrophe. And, now the federal government, which contributes nothing to state and local government pensions, is urging California to weaken those reforms or else face the loss of billions of dollars in transit funds to which your state is otherwise entitled.

The threat is an outrageous abuse of federal authority and Gov. Brown should fight it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

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