I suspect if that if named a United States Senator tomorrow (might as well give the right-wing immediate heartburn at that prospect) my committee assignment of choice would be the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the so-called, and when run correctly, aptly named HELP Committee. Putting four important issues so remarkably interlinked together was wise indeed, but those linkages are not always obvious to some who deem themselves progressives.
My progressive friends breathed a sigh of relief last week when the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, appreciate the importance of a strong public education system, and usually understand the basics of workers having a voice at the table through collective bargaining rights. But last year, so many progressive legislators, despite making commitments to the contrary, often in writing to the groups that endorsed them, voted to implement some of the most draconian changes in the country to Rhode Island’s state-run public pension plans. And many of their progressive supporters seem to be equally confused by the issue or just wish it would go away. It will not, and should not.
The elected officials who broke their commitments know who they are. While, to the dismay of many, I remain personally fond of Rhode Island General Treasurer Gina Raimondo (who made no commitments on the issue), she essentially told the General Assembly that our unfunded pension liability was a “weapon of mass destruction,” and with remarkable haste in a virtually unprecedented special session, the Rhode Island Retirement Security Act of 2011 was enacted. And it was enacted with a lot of nominally progressive votes. I have more sympathy for elected officials willing to make amends, those who felt caught up in the same type of political tide that led federal elected officials to support the ill-advised war in Iraq (a vote which was at least a contributing factor to Hillary Clinton losing the Democratic Presidential nomination) and now acknowledge their errors in judgment, than for those who are angry they have been asked to account for their votes. I do give kudos to Providence Mayor Angel Taveras for negotiating a solution with active and retired employees as the state should have done and progressive legislators should have insisted they do.
All of that said, this article is not primarily directed at elected officials who need to reconsider their priorities, but at the progressive community in general. It is ironic that many of my more conservative acquaintances, while still maintaining their distaste for both unions and defined benefit pensions, confide in me their belief that the State of Rhode Island acted illegally in breaking the covenant it had with those workers and retirees. It pains me that some of the progressives with whom I have fought side by side in so many battles do not understand either the legal or moral obligation the State has to those workers, or that society should have to provide real retirement security to all workers. Worse are those that buy into, and repeat, the false choices argument – that if the state honors commitments to its public sector workers, it won’t be able to tighten the safety net for those most in need. Have the recent tax cuts for the wealthiest among us have been forgotten so quickly? False choices indeed!
Progressives believe that the entire arc of an individual’s life should be imbued with justice. That includes not only a world free from discrimination, a clean environment, the right to choose, the right to marry the partner of your choice and help for those who need it the most, but access to quality, affordable health care, an excellent public education, a good job with good wages where workers have a voice, and a secure retirement.
Apparently, one can still be a Democrat and ignore some of these issues – but you can’t claim to be a progressive.