Guardian, SEIU's Ridiculous Take on Pension Reform

Categories: Media
I know! Let's tax the rich!
If you hopelessly lash yourself to one of the city's political camps you're likely either a hack or on the payroll. Or, in the case of this week's Guardian editorial likening city pension reform to Wisconsin-style union-busting, both.

The piece is penned by the president and vice president of the local SEIU, who can't be blamed for having an opinion about matters that affect the fiscal well-being of their dues-paying members. That is, after all, what unions do. Less sanguine is the astonishingly misguided and dishonest assessment of this city's pension problem.

Deconstructing the arguments presented in this piece is almost akin to trying to explain why time-travel sequences in movies don't obey the laws of physics. Back to the Future was meant to entertain and this editorial was meant to either influence or entrench readers in their positions. Reality is not a factor.

So, let's start with the notion that the city's gaping deficit is merely "the excuse" to assail workers' pension payments.

In the fantasy world, the problem isn't that San Francisco is paying $423 million this year toward workers' pensions. The problem is, we haven't taxed the rich and the corporations enough that bleeding a projected half-a-billion dollars or even $750 million into pensions in the very near future isn't a problem.

There's a legitimate argument to be made that, historically, we're paying a pittance for taxes and could stand to contribute more. But that's not a viable manner of addressing our massive pension problem (neither is blaming Bernie Madoff).

If we were swimming in money, yes, we could afford to pay out the odd half billion (or more) on exploding pensions. But we're not, obviously -- and, even if we were, the notion that we shouldn't address out-of-control pension spending because we ought to be taxing the hell out of the rich and throwing that money into our pension hole is clumsy thinking. In essence, the contention being pushed here is that we should fix a leak in the bucket by pouring water in faster.

The Guardian editorial's other spurious claim is that Jeff Adachi's pension crusade is 100-percent akin to Gov. Scott Walker's crackdown on labor in Wisconsin. If you're going to make ridiculous comparisons of Adachi to undesirable public figures you might as well go whole hog and liken him to Hitler. But then you'd never be treated to logic like this:

But while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature eliminated collective bargaining for their public employees to slash their wages, health care, and pensions, Adachi is slashing San Francisco's workers pay and pensions through the ballot, effectively taking those items off the bargaining table. What's the difference?

Other than the latter coming about via the will of the people and leaving workers free to use collective bargaining to negotiate higher salaries to make up for increased pension and health care payments? Not much!

Finally, the argument is trotted out, once again, that pension reform is hopelessly corrupted because wealthy Republicans have donated money to Adachi's measures. This neatly avoids delving into policy matters whatsoever. It also conveniently ignores organized labor's scorched-earth campaign to upend Prop. B last election cycle -- a campaign joined by every last local elected city, state, and federal official.

With every vestige of organized politics heavily reliant on labor support in this city, it's no surprise Adachi turned to rich Republicans for funding. One of the favorite games of the Guardian is to craft tangled spider charts a la Lyndon LaRouche revealing vast, interlocked conspiracies. But you don't need to don a tinfoil hat and evoke the New World Order to understand why union higher-ups are against altering the status quo. And while Adachi's backers may be well out of step with "San Francisco Values," ignoring the substance of the pension and health care reform measures is as productive as suggesting the right-wing billionaires donate the million dollars and change they spilled into pension reform into alleviating our $380 million budget deficit.

There is one kernel of truth in the Guardian piece, however. When the authors note "No one is more concerned with the viability of the pension fund than those who plan to retire on it," this is certainly the case. Of course, the pension fund will remain "viable" for "those who plan to retire on it" regardless of how much money is being sucked out of the general fund. The city is legally mandated to fund the pension system, no matter how many programs need to be cut or future workers laid off or left unhired.

In other words: "San Francisco's benefits system is protected by the city charter, and is sustainable. The city, as we know it, isn't."

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dont matterthe tax extensions are going no wherewhen i read this kinda crap i'm inclined to vote against themthe public is in the mood to break somethingthe idea that sf can just keep increasing taxes cuz it is such a desireable place to live and work is an illusion that died with herb caenthe rest of the state would love to see you pushed into bankruptcy as a reward for your incompetant, corrupt and liberal governance


SF is contractually obligated to pay out those pension benefits. You can't actually change them.

The workers are paid less than someone with equal education in the private sector so they can receive these benefits.

More fact free pension nonsense.


These SEIU people certainly have the right to let their greed be heard but these people are utterly dishonest. It is scary that they have any credibility outside of the public employee community.

And yes, why hasn't SFWeekly covered Herrera's rigging the Prop B language by omitting the word "pension" at the request of the unions (no other measure in the state in November- there were like 14 pension reform measures throughout the state- did such and thing) and writing a purposefully confusing two sentence summary that appeared on every ballot card...??

Richard H
Richard H

People who read SFBG don't vote. They get angry and uppity, but they don't vote.

People who say things like "San Francisco Values" shouldn't be trusted any more than people who say "Real America." It just reeks of more superiority and smug. Republicans are just as much a part of San Francisco as tree hugging, cell tower hating NIMBYs. I know you're quoting the article, it just rubs me wrong.

Nobody Special
Nobody Special

Actually, Bay Guardian readers do vote and they are influenced by the paper. At least according to the polling data I've used for the past decade. They aren't necessarily 5/5 voters because many of them aren't here that long. But when they are here, they vote and often rely on the Guardian slate for guidance. Annoying but true.

Adachi might lose again in November but he'll win eventually. The unions can avoid and delay but this train is coming down the track. At some point, the program cuts needed to fund retirement benefits will fracture the progressive voting bloc - both electeds and activists. Raising taxes on the rich is popular but it won't permanently cover the hole and, despite our reputation, SF voters are prickly about which tax measures they support, even in a strong economy (unless it includes the words children, teachers or schools - then the checkbook is always open).

I think the unions blew a really good opportunity to find a compromise by excluding Adachi from the Hellman group. It might have made them feel good and more confident to keep him out but it also doomed their efforts from the start. The increase trajectory for city retirement benefits is just too sharp for this "hold at bay until the economy improves" strategy to succeed over time. We're going to feel the cuts to city services long before we feel wealthy again. By prolonging this discussion, the unions are actually giving voters more time to question long held assumptions about what's fair and appropriate. They should have made a good faith effort with Adachi at the table to take steam out of this debate. As is, voters are constantly being reminded that SF public employees have great retirement benefits even while many of the voters don't. The longer this discussion continues, the more that message will be reinforced.

Just keep showing up, Jeff. Use the same measure if necessary year after year. Eventually, the voters will catch up.

h. brown
h. brown

You forgot,

to make note that the number one person pushing the City towards bankruptcy is mayoral candidate, Dennis Herrera. He effectively killed Adachi's, 'Prop B' in the last election cycle by refusing to label it on the ballot (yes, the City Attorney gets to do that) ... Dennis refused (at the behest of Nathan Ballard and SEIU I'm told) to list Pension Reform as 'Pension Reform'.

Herrera is doing exactly the same thing with the new Adachi Pension Reform measures. Making the ballot description confusing and contradictory because Herrera wants to kiss Gabriel Haaland's butt big time.

The number one villain here is Dennis Herrera. He's the guy enabling the SEIU drive to put the City into bankruptcy. Remember that in November and tell your friends to remember it too.

Why does Dennis Herrera hate San Francisco and America?

I don't know.

Go Giants!



Great article. I have read the Guardian article a few times and remain utterly perplexed by it. It doesn't frame the problem and doesn't propose a solution. They call Adachi's plan not progressive, but don't explain why other than pointing to the donors to Adachi's effort. They ignore the math. They ignore the problem.

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